Tunnel raises issue of who controls jail

 

THE discovery of an escape tunnel in H Block 7 has raised the thorny old question of who runs the Maze. The Northern Ireland Office insists that the authorities are firmly in control. However, unionist politicians and prison officers claim the IRA is in the driving seat.

The Maze is supposed to be the most secure prison in the UK so the fact that a sophisticated escape tunnel could be built, and survive undetected for so long, is highly embarrassing for the authorities.

The Prison Officers Association was not surprised by the escape attempt. Its chairman, Mr Finlay Spratt, said IRA inmates have "a free rein almost 24 hours a day" in the Maze.

"If the public knew what was going on they would be astonished," he said. "Nothing is being done by the book." The British government abandoned special category status, commonly known as political status, for prisoners in 1976 but unionists say it exists in all but name.

After the 1981 H Block hunger strike, prison conditions improved dramatically and there has been a further relaxation in the regime since the IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994. There has been no noticeable toughening of security since its breakdown.

Mr Spratt says prisoners have far too much freedom. Former inmates have said a prisoner's morning starts with a head count and they fill the rest of the day whatever way they please until another head count at 8 p.m.

They have freedom to move about within their wing and are not locked in their cells, even at night. There are 537 prisoners in the Maze, about 300 of whom are republican.

Both loyalist and republican paramilitaries exert a strong influence in the jail. IRA inmates take orders from their "OC" - "officer commanding", and not from prison officers.

The only time that inmates are locked up is during searches. Prison officers have said these are too infrequent and short. The DUP said officers must ask permission from the resident IRA OC before they enter the wings, which gives prisoners time to hide whatever they want concealed.

Prison officers have called for searches to be conducted on a spot check basis. Although the prisoners exercise considerable control within their wings, outside these the authorities are clearly in charge.

The H Blocks a surrounded by huge grey walls with perimeter fencing topped by razor wire and patrolled by dogs. Floodlights and cameras, filled with infra red capabilities, are trained on the fencing while wires string across the ground preventing helicopters from landing.

A Sinn Fein negotiator, Mr Gerry Kelly, one of the organisers of the 1983 escape, denied that prisoners were in control of the Maze.