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A Visit with an H Block Prisoner

category antrim | crime and justice | news report author Wednesday December 13, 2017 00:26author by Michael Steinbertg - Black Rain Pressauthor email blackrainpress at hotmail dot com Report this post to the editors

Last August (1990) I was among a delegation from Irish Northern Aid (Noraid), which visited current prisoners in Long Kesh.

A VISIT WITH AN H BLOCK PRISONER

MICHAEL STEINBERG

In 1981 the deaths of 10 Irish hunger strikers in the H Blocks of Britain's Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland brought the Irish struggle for freedom starkly to the world's attention.

Bobby Sands and the other 9 men who died were fighting specifically to be recognized as political prisoners, prisoners of war in a liberation struggle against 800 years of British occupation and oppression.

British authorities did grant "special category" status to Irish political prisoners until the mid-1970s. When the British withdrew this status in 1976, protests by both men and women prisoners began immediately, climaxing in the 1980-81 hunger strikes.

Today (1190) all of the hunger strikers who died would have served out their sentences. Soon after their deaths British prison authorities began quietly granting all the hunger strikers demands, with one big exception: formal recognition of political prisoner status.

Last August (1990) I was among a delegation from Irish Northern Aid (Noraid), which visited current prisoners in Long Kesh.

Noraid is a North American group that raises funds to help support the families of Irish political prisoners. It also publishes information that counters the British propaganda machine, financed by that government to the tune of $600 million annually in North America.

Our busload of 44 visitors pulled up to the main gate of Long Kesh after a short ride from Belfast on the afternoon of August 7. Belfast and Long Kesh are both in Antrim, 1 of 6 counties still occupied by the British in northeast Ireland. Like prisons worldwide, Long Kesh is gray, ugly and foreboding.

A remote controlled gate wrenchingly ground open and we filed in past the barbed wire above and across an empty yard towards a receiving station. A clumsily camouflaged guard tower didn't do much to conceal heavily armed guards lurking about behind hanging potted plants.

Each of us had been given a visit pass. On it was the name and prison number of the prisoner we were to visit. Most of us were paired off for our visits. My partner and I were to see Peter Corbett, #2035.

We had been instructed that we would be allowed to bring in only cigarettes and a small amount of loose change. We also had been told that we would be searched , but the that if the guards tried to strip search us, we should refuse. We would lose out on the visit, but the prisoners had communicated that they would rather this happen than be subjected to this indignity, which they and their families have suffered many times.

Guards behind bullet proof glass took our passes looked us over passed them back without looking at us, and directed us to the waiting room. Colorful wall paintings of Donald Duck, Goofy and friends were a bizarre contrast to the tense atmosphere.

Each of us was separately called into a small bleak room where a guard ordered us to empty our pockets onto a table where he sat. A second guard stood behind us and body searched us.

From there we were led to a vehicle that transported us to the visiting area. We climbed in the back of the vehicle where doors closed automatically, sealing us in it. We could see neither who was driving us nor where we were going.

I did manage to locate to locate a narrow slit in the back through which I could see us moving across a huge bare area. Several times along the way we stopped and the back doors flew open to reveal armed guards looking in on us. We also made a few turns, though whether this was necessary or a deliberate attempt to confuse us is hard to say.

Finally we were let out at the visiting area. More guards led us into another waiting room, surrounded by more high walls and razor wire.

My visitation partner and I were the last 2 to be called into the waiting room itself Our summons was the same as at all the other stations: "#2035, Corbett."

The visiting room consisted of a series of attached benches and tables crowded into an oppressively small space. At each table people hunched together trying to make themselves heard amidst a buzz of noise in the half hour allotted. Expressions of happiness and humor, longing and loneliness filled their faces. Couples embraced and children yelled and scampered.

Once inside the room the guards guards did no direct us to Peter Corbett. Instead we wandered amidst the din in the back, where we found him standing and waiting for us eagerly.

He asked us to sit down after shaking our hands, and immediately set us at ease, offering us cold drinks and candy bars. Both of us non-smokers offered him cigarettes from the packs we'd brought in, but he smiled and told us he didn't smoke either.

Peter was wearing a brightly colored surfer duck shirt tee shirt and a sporty windbreaker jacket. The right to refuse a prison uniform and wear one's own clothes was 1 of the demands of the hunger strikers.

He told us he prefers the name Peadar, the Irish version of Peter. He is 21, and from the Ardoyne section of North Belfast, a small nationalist community surround by loyalists.

Nationalists want Northern Ireland to be united with the rest of Ireland, and usually but not always are Catholic. Loyalists want Northern Ireland to stay under British rule and are usually Protestant. Loyalists are descendants of people from Scotland who were given plantations in Ireland in return for conquering the native people. Nationalists of those whose land liberty was stolen.

In 1969, around the time Peadar Corbett was born, loyalist police mobs invaded the Ardoyne and other parts of Belfast in reaction to a growing nationalist civil rights movement. These mobs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), raided nationalist areas, and then allowed loyalist gangs to fire bomb and burn peoples homes to the ground. Nationalists were also injured and killed.

That was the world Peadar Corbett was born into. That same year, 1969, British army troops were sent in, supposedly as peace keepers between 2 warring communities. However, they soon showed themselves to be supporters of the loyalist power structure, and acted as military occupiers of nationalist communities.

To defend themselves, nationalists reactivated the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a fighting force. In doing so, they drew mostly from the community's youth. Today, 21 year's later Peadar Corbett's life exemplifies the Irish struggle to rid the land of British tyranny.

Peadar has been in Long Kesh for 2 years, accused of a bombing on the word of an informer. He was given a sentence of 17 years, and has a minimum of 6 to go before he will be eligible for parole.

Peadar explained to us how each block of the prison is shaped like an H, with 4 wings at the ends, and the prison guard control unit in the middle. But this control is itself controlled by the prisoners. These POWs don't do prison work, have their own organizations and educational programs, and only take orders from their own wing officers. These rights too were demands of the hunger strikers.

Though young in years and appearance, Peadar Corbett demonstrated during our brief meeting a shrewd intelligence, political maturity, and keen interest and knowledge of events in Ireland, the US, and around the world. Though he has lived his life in extraordinary circumstances, he does not pretend to be anything other than an ordinary person fighting to be free.

The combined forces of the British Army and RUC today number 30,000 in the 6 Irish counties they continue to occupy by force. The IRA's fighting force is estimated at about 300. Yet the IRA strikes at will, supported by a network that runs deep into nationalist communities.

Since 1969 the British British have tried a series of repressive measures to obliterate the IRA and quelch the nationalist people's freedom movement. This has included internment without trial, massive house raids, constant stop and searches, blanket overt and covert surveillance, mass perjury trials, torture, shoot to kill, and death squad murders of innocent nationalists.

Such death squad assassinations are frequent in Peadar Corbett's home of Ardoyne.

Political prisoners such as Peadar are tried in jury less courts, as marksmen train guns on them and British helicopters hover over the courtrooms. The 3 judges present wear bulletproof vests and are usually members of the Orange Order, whose attitude towards nationalists are equivalent to the KKK's towards African Americans.

In spite of all this the Irish freedom movement continues to grow, and it seems that only the reactionary national pride of Margaret Thatcher and her kind is delaying the inevitable withdrawal of Britain from Ireland.

Before we know it the guards are telling us to wrap it up. But we keep talking until we come to a natural stopping place. Then we exchange addresses and say reluctant goodbyes. Since we were the last in, we were the last out as well. The rest of the room was now empty, except for the considerable number of edgy prison guards.

As Peadar led the guards out of the room, he quickly flashed us a final smile and a special signal. The signal stood for IRA, and the smile for victory. The guards, of course, missed it all.

We solemnly filed back onto the awaiting vehicle, which again sealed us in, and then deposited us at the visitor exit. This led us back across the yard and out the gate we had entered.

Outside the gate we weren't saying much, but we were looking back with a mixture of sadness and rage. In a small act of defiance, a number of us snapped away with our cameras, in violation of British law.

A clipped voice came over the loudspeaker: "Please refrain from taking pictures of Her Majesty's Prison." Then the gate again wrenchingly slid to close and shut with the crash of an empire's final falling.

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