Throughout the Troubles there were thousands of men and women locked up, detained, interned, etc., from all over N. Ireland. There are many different versions of the Troubles with people making their own spin on stories to suit their needs and objectives. One thing that was reality for many men women and their families was imprisonment. It may have been in the 19th century brick house called the Crum – now an empty but budding tourist attraction. It may have been the ‘Stalag’ like cages and compounds of Long Kesh and Magilligan in the ‘70 and ‘80s. Or it may have been the cold concrete of the world infamous H Blocks in the ‘80s and 90s. And Armagh prison, open from 1780 until 1986, housed some of those women who were involved in the Troubles.
You had to survive, stay sane and live through the day. This article is about the loyalist Special Category prisoners in the cages of the Long Kesh in the 1970s.
Special category prisoners were those convicted in a Diplock Non-Jury Court in connection with the troubles. We lived in wire enclosed compounds with barbed wire, guard dogs, watchtowers and the British army on patrol. Those with determinate sentences had a fixed date of release. Usually this was half the allocated sentence. A prisoner with a ten year sentence would usually serve out 5 years from the date of arrest.
Life sentence prisoners did not have a date to look forward to or plan around. Some of the lifers had recommendations regarding sentencing made by the presiding Judge. For two of our comrades this was 35 year minimum starting from the date of their trial. Many men had 20 year minimums. I was in the Crumlin Road prison when the first natural life (full tariff) was given out to a Republican prisoner. I also knew the two Loyalist given natural life sentences.
It was in 1978 just after being sentenced that I was being held in the ‘Crum’ before going down to the Kesh. From my second floor cell I could see up the Crumlin Road and I had a view of Black Mountain. I spent the evening of my 21st birthday just staring out the window at freedom. So close, so far. I watched the mountain side darken down as another day came to a close on Belfast. It was a long evening. It should have been a highligh of my life. Instead I was wondering what my parents and fiancé were doing and how they were coping with this.
Set against all the politics, both inside and out, the protests, the hunger strikes, the pain and the suffering, life went on inside the prison. Some people actually said that it was the eye of the storm. Men and women had to live through a day, a week, a year and find purpose and meaning in their existence. In some ways it was easy. We were tied to the Troubles. It was the reason for being there. We were a part of our communities and a symptom, not the cause, of what was wrong in society. The propaganda was that we were all criminals. This line has been forgotten as many ex-prisoners are feted and dined both here, in Dublin and the United States.
There have been many famous writers who have written of their imprisonment. I recall reading Victor Serge’s ‘Men in Prison’. Serge was a Belgian anarchist who was imprisoned to 5 years solitary in 1912 for acts of terrorism. This is a fantastic book that captures the sensation of time passing. Time could drag or go fast depending on what was happening. He captures the mood of what it is like to watch a day slowly pass while locked in a small cell.
Nelson Mandela was the most famous prisoner of Robben Island in the apartheid state that was South Africa. Mandela was demonised as a terrorist and spent many years in hard conditions only to be released and become the president of a nation and people. His book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ tells of his 27 years as a prisoner. This was a far tougher regime having to work in a quarry and with the added poison of racism.
The world famous author Dostoevsky writes of his time in prison in the “House of the Dead”. In 1849 he was arrested and sent to Omsk in Siberia to begin a 4 year sentence. As he notes “.the place was filthy… and had fleas and lice”. It reminds me of the foot race I had with a cockroach while walking up one of the landings in the ‘Crum’.
So what of the Special Category compounds? One quote I recall was that, “if you can’t do time here then you can’t do it anywhere”. We lived in a half round tin hut housing 30 odd men. One black and white TV. 2 toilets per hut. The men were overwhelmingly young. At one time we had the youngest prison population in Europe.
We had our own clothes, our own food, had a visit a week. We were unlocked at 7 and locked up at 9 that night. We also had a command structure. Discipline was the order of the day. We did not take orders from the ‘screws’. On a Monday your room and uniform was inspected and you did British army style marching. Some of us did not like this and seen it as an extra burden to bear. I didn’t particularly mind one way or the other.
Part of the compound culture was getting your uniform right. One activity was ‘bulling’ your boots so that they shone like glass. Often we would sit together for ages with a cloth, black boot polish and spit. Boots would be gleaming and the banter was good. Time passed easy. Some lads played endless games of cards.
The secret, if there was one, was to keep busy. The compound would be alive with activity at times. Reading books, (some of us clubbed our money together and started a book club), studying for Degrees with the Open University, physical training, bible studies, writing letters, doing handicrafts. Walking and talking. Watching the TV. A film a week on the antique reel to reel! One good thing about our compound was the characters. It was amazing how some people could be so happy and carefree in high security captivity. While there was undeniable tensions between men there were the happy and funny times with a sense of togetherness.
When busy and happy, time flew. Not a bad thing for a prisoner with no release date. It was times of stress and worry that time seemed to go into reverse gear.
‘Big’ times such as a birthdays or Xmas also marked out the passage of time. Many men also kept close tabs on what was happening outside and indeed major events were also markers of time. The abortive 1977 strike, the hunger strikes, the Anglo Irish deal, Gibraltar. We watched, as others did, and wondered if these events would impact on us in a good or bad way. There were other more ominous markers of time. During visits we would hear of who had died, who had been arrested or even killed through the conflict.
It was late in my sentence that I had my experience of the ‘boards’. This was a very real way of appreciating time dragging. There had been the usual conflicts between us and the staff but now the situation was getting stricter as our numbers dwindled. I was put on the boards i.e. disciplined, for noncompliance with orders namely around a strip search. While strip searches are needed for security purposes these can be abused to humiliate and degrade prisoners that some staff don’t like.
So the Governor give me a minimum of 3 days cellular confinement and it is literally the boards. Your mattress is taken out in the morning and brought back in at night. There is nothing in the concrete cell except a Bible. You are allowed out for an hour’s walk each day. The interesting thing is that the governor did not have a legal right to do this. Prisoners were soon able to argue that we were being punished yet we had no rights, no appeal, etc. It was a little bit of Stalinist Russia set just outside Lisburn!
Anyway I found myself in a 10 feet by 8 feet cell. The heat was turned on yet it was a warm summer’s day. I asked for it to be turned off and was told that it could not be turned off. The window was covered by Perspex with a couple of holes to allow air in. It was oppressive and at first threatening. Now the day appeared 100 times longer. No books bar the Bible. No one to talk to. No food or drink. No chair. Nothing. So I decided to go for a walk.
Round and round the cell. I walked to Bangor. I calculated the distance round the cell and then went for it. I had all day. Thankfully I had previously completed some yoga. I used my jumper as a pillow and lay on the boards. This helped pass the time to no end. I also completed press ups and sit ups. Besides reading the Bible I started to mentally recall all the 32 counties, all the states in America, all the teams in the English leagues and so on.
I was to spend 3 separate spells on the boards. I was’ given’ 3 days loss of privileges for those periods. And while it was long and boring it was bearable. It was nothing compared to the experience of Jack Henry Abbott as outlined in his book “In the Belly of the Beast”. This prisoner experiences weeks in solitary and in total darkness. He begins to hallucinate and lose contact with reality. Not the best way to prepare someone to lead a good and useful life when released? One way of marking out the day was food. It was a long wait to get your food. The state of it depended on the screws in charge at that time. But it was a major event in your day and much welcomed.
The longest time of the day was the evening. There was less activity on the punishment wing and it was very quiet. I enjoyed the quiet away from the often raucous environment in the hut. I certainly picked up on my Bible. My only real worry was my parents. They had no experience at all of the prison system and they would be worried about how I was coping. I reassured them I was OK when I next seen them.
Many of us learned patience which maybe wasn’t in abundance before our enforced learning. Now we could divide a year up and live through it. We were young and did have the time. One unshakeable belief and value was that we are part of our community: part of the war and we would be part of the solution. We would be going home if we lived through this.
Education played a big part in the lives and this could be used to structure a year. The O.U. started in February and ran to October and was a good way of marking time because dates were set for essays to be completed. Others completed many different types of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. The majority of men trained in the gym and this was a way to set up your own regime and targets. Some men undertook running and completed marathons. Others set weight training goals such as bench pressing 400lb while others undertook boxing training and became extremely fit. There was usually football on the big pitch about once a week. This could help ‘get a day in’.
The marking of time took a significant shift in 1985 for Special Category prisoners. Up until then everyone was of the belief that while the Troubles lasted we lifers would not be released and we would remain in prison until a ceasefire was called. In early 1985 2 SOSPs from our Compound were brought to the Crumlin road prison to be released. This was seismic stuff for us. It showed there now was a hope of release. Some men had already left for the H Blocks in a hope of securing earlier release and when Maghaberry came into operation this was another place that prisoners could go to get away from the paramilitary organisations.
A process then came into being with lifers being interviewed at stages. If unsuccessful you got a 2 year knockback. This meant at the very best you could hope for a release in 3 years’ time if successful the next time. Some of us did not bother taking Governors interviews knowing that there was no chance of release and this was a bit of game to be played. So while hope blossomed it also brought its own tension. Some men were going home, others not. When I got my first 2 year knockback I was unhappy. It was like being sentenced again and time slowed up. I decided to skip the next ‘interview’.
Part of the prisoner philosophy is to keep going and hope something will turn up. That’s what happened in 1987/1988. The Hunger strikes had come and gone, the Provo Escape had taken place, and the usual political wrangling was ongoing. Special category status was a very visible and tangible reminder to the state that there was a special situation and there were exceptional prisoners in their criminal justice system. They needed to get rid of Special Category and so a simple plan was drawn up.
Leave the Compounds and with a nod and wink you would be released if you play the game. Sort of a ‘no brainer’. Next thing all cage prisoners are shifting to H Block 2 and hence closer to a permanent exit. A first Xmas parole and then a summer parole. When given a date of release we had to move to a ‘working out’ unit. For me that was in the Crumlin Road. Now time takes a slightly different form.
One of the helpful things for marking time is routine. A constructive and productive routine. This went out the window when moved to the working out unit. Tension and expectations were high. There is a prison phrase, ‘Gate Fever’. When a prisoner knows he or she is about to be released their constructed world goes into melt down. He or she gets agitated, restless and out of sorts. If going into prison is a shock, getting out can even be worse.
Time now is paradoxical. Time slows up as you want to be away and free. But it races when you are finally walking in freedom again. You have new experiences to be sampled, new routines and overall a chance to get your life back.
Looking back illustrates a common thing about time perception. At the time of our imprisonment the years ahead seemed so far away and insurmountable. Now, years after release, the whole decade and more seemed so short and quick. Since my release time has taken the fast track. Raising my family, going to university, getting employment, engaging in many sports and hobbies. Supporting and loving my parents who supported and loved me through all the bad times. Talking with young people about my experience. Travelling to the far side of the world. Watching young people grow and seeing the changes in this country that would have been unbelievable at one time. Time has raced. As I said above the more you do the quicker time goes. And finally, for the prisoner and the free person, there is still the realisation for us all, that our time here is finite.