Ombudsman defends North's strip searches


Solitary confinement is an “extremely undesirable” measure in punishing prisoners, according to the prisoner ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Pauline McCabe, who yesterday addressed an Oireachtas committee, was pressed on the widespread use of solitary confinement in Northern Ireland’s prisons, as well as the detention of republican Marian Price.

Several members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement also asked her about bullying and the “degrading and unnecessary” use of strip-searching.

Senator Mary White (Fianna Fáil) said she had been “shocked and horrified” on a visit to Maghaberry Prison in Lisburn in December at conditions she heard about, including bullying, intimidation, overcrowding and sexual harassment.

She described the ongoing detention of Price as “cruel” and “inhumane”.

Price’s detention was also raised by Maureen O’Sullivan TD (Independent) and Seán Crowe TD (Sinn Féin).

Price (59), who served seven years for her part in the 1973 Old Bailey bombings and was released in 1980, was sent back to prison in May 2011 by the then Northern secretary, Owen Paterson.

He revoked her release licence after she had held up a statement from which a masked dissident had read that threatened further attacks on PSNI officers at a republican rally in Derry in April that year.

Ms White said it appeared she was being held solely because of her past record, while Mr Crowe said she was an example of the use of solitary confinement “to break people”.

According to figures from the Northern Irish Prison Service, there were 1,041 cases of solitary confinement in 2011 in a prison population of about 1,800, compared with 775 in 2010, 834 in 2009 and 959 in 2008.


Solitary confinement and strip-searching were also raised by Martin Ferris TD (Sinn Féin).

Ms McCabe said she could not comment on individual cases, and said her office had had no complaint about the treatment of Price.

She said strip-searching was a necessary part of the prison system’s strategy to keep drugs out. However, she acknowledged that republican prisoners were unlikely to smuggle or use drugs.