The Hole: Crumlin Jail - "Major Mullen"

An account of an anarchist's time in Crumlin Road Young Prisoners Centre (Belfast) in the early 1970s.

From Anarchy #6 (second series) 1971.

ARREST

I was arrested in a fairly quiet area of Belfast last August, two days after the murder by the army in a fairly small riot, of a youth, Danny O'Hagan, allegedly for throwing a petrol bomb. The incident sparked off a week of vicious rioting all over Belfast, even in areas which had previously seen none. I was out walking with my brother and a friend not far from home when we were picked up by the military and charged with disorderly-behaviour, which at the time carried a mandatory six month jail sentence. Soldiers don't like rioters or riots. By arresting us they were able to get away from the scene to which they had been sent as reinforcements. They vented their anger in the old way.

When arrested I was wearing my black badge. They did not like any explanation that this was in mourning for Danny O'Hagan1. We were convicted on very thin evidence and sentenced to serve six months. On appeal one soldier was forced to admit that he did not actually make the arrest which he had spent the previous 20 minutes describing. Estimates of crowd size, - given by the soldiers, varied from 12 to 500. We had four further witnesses to corroborate our story but nonetheIess the conviction stood.

Belfast Prison works in much the same way as other British prisons. As Young Prisoners we were entitled to very few privileges in the first month. Pay was 3/- per week and we were locked up every evening at 4.30 p.m. We saw no television, except at weekends, worked seven days a week and suffered the same gruel and disrespect as the other prisoners. We were given jobs in the dining hall and spent our days scrubbing floors and doing equally mundane work.

WORK AND SECTARIANISM

I worked every day of my committal (including- Saturnalia) except for two days that I spent "sick in cell". For the first few weeks the prison officers made it their duty to let us know our place. After a month we were given a few more privileges; television at 8 p.m. every evening except Sunday and pay on a points system. I was then able to earn as much as 6/3 a week. Making friends was easy. A work squad very quickly becomes a gang. Within these groups there is, on the surface at least, a strong sense of loyalty. I noticed that one or two individuals could hold positions of respect. When the dirty jobs were shared out (prisoners could often decide their own scheme) these individuals got off easy.

Prisons, for some reason, abound with working class people. Throughout the rioting political manouvring has ensured that most of the prisoners came from one side of the sectarian fence. Again the heaviest sentences were given to these people. Consequently the proportions of "Catholics" to "Protestants" in Belfast Prison does not reflect the regional trend.

This cannot be explained away wholly by saying that Catholics do most of the rioting or that no Protestant subversive army exists. This state of affairs manifests itself in the almost complete division of the prison into two camps. The vast majority of the prisoners were brought up in the ghettoes and the prison itself is a system of superimposed ghettoes.

Catholics and Protestants often share the same cell2. Prisoners are forced to sit where they are put in the dining hail. Mixing occurs. On these occasions, and during "association" the time when all prisoners watch television, this mixing is inevitable. Division is most obvious in the work parties. Some jobs are considered more desirable than others. Dining hall work is not one of them. The hours are longer and one works every day. All members cf the dining hall worksquad (barring the occasional misplaced new prisoner) are Catholics. For long term prisoners the most desirable job is that of orderly. This involves keeping the place tidy and arselicking the screws for confiscated tobacco. The other most desirable job is a trade. This offers the young prisoner the opportunity of finishing his apprenticeship or picking up the threads of a new one, if the facilities happen to be available.

GROUP LOYALTY

In the Young Prisoners' Centre, while I was there., there was only one Catholic orderly, out of a turnover in my time of about 20 and in the trades, when I went in, there was only one Catholic.

Later a young Catholic, serving eight years for possession of a firearm, was given a job. It was made clear that the reason for this was that he could be watched more closely in that part of the prison. When a vacancy arose a young Protestant serving six months was given it in preference to any one of a fresh batch of IRA men starting sentences ranging from two to eight years for possession of arms.

In Belfast Prison, probably more than in any other, a political prisoner lives in suspicion of everyone else, particularly those of a different political (and often religious) persuasion. During my time I learnt to trust one other individual that I had met there. My politics were known to most of the prisoners but in their minds I was grouped with the republicans. I was seen as a "Catholic anarchist". As a result of this I found it nearly impossible to talk to Protestants, especially those in for political offences.

I was talking casually to one, asked where he lived just for the sake of conversation, and he answered, "I'd be a fool to tell you that". He probably thought I wanted to shoot him sometime outside. All he did by saying that was virtually convince me that he was a member of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force —Protestant fascist army as distinct from IRA "provisional"—Catholic fascist army).

Short-termers were always suspect. Political prisoners are always on the look out for Special Branch spies. The greater danger is from fellow prisoners who try to make life easy for themselves by arselicking the screws. If they are non-political they may think that they have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by telling on other prisoners. While I was inside two men were shot dead on separate occasions shortly after release. Maybe they had something to lose, their lives.

I firmly believe that there are prisoners in Belfast Prison working directly for the Special Branch. I was told by a fellow prisoner that two men who had been shunned, because they were suspected of this, were granted immediate discharges. I found out more about the IRA in prison, through the idle talk of others than I could have learnt anywhere else. Every pub in Belfast, known to be frequented by subversives, is also frequented by army intelligence and Special Branch, who often make no effort to disguise themselves (they don't actually come in uniform). Spies are in the prison but I suspect that most of them are genuine convicts either arselicking or being threatened by the authorities.

POLITICAL ACTION IN PRISON

As in probably all prisons the inmates are treated with contempt. It is impossible for a prisoner to make a complaint and, unless suffering from something very small or very serious, impossible to get adequate medical attention. Several genuine protests were made by the prisoners. In December a group of prisoners refused to take their evening meal on the grounds that it was inadequate, as it always is. They were all locked up and asked individually if they wanted to make a complaint. Eleven did. They were brought before the Board of Visitors (the Ministry's impartial non-political henchmen). Their complaint was found to be groundless and the men were confined to their cells without privileges for 22 days. On another occasion prisoners working out in the woodyard refused to work in the poor weather without adequate clothing. The Governor was called for. He told the prisoners to work and this time only one refused.

He was given three days, "on the board". That is solitary confinement on a restricted diet of one pint of soup, one pint of tea and dry bread. Prisoners on the board are forced to sleep on a bare wooden table. Later all prisoners were given special outdoor dress. On another occasion a prisoner, a personal friend, tripped over a log in the woodyard. He hurt his hand and went to see the doctor. Three times in three weeks the doctor diagnosed a sprained hand. On the fourth week he discovered that three fingers were broken. The young man received hospital treatment but by that time his hand was irreparably deformed. Again another friend had his wrist broken in an incident with a screw. He moved from his seat during meal time without permission. The screw, being a playful animal, pulled out his baton and struck the man on the wrist. This was in front of about 200 witnesses.. The man insisted on making a complaint but was told that if he did so he would be punished, for making a groundless complaint. He was offered an already typed statement to sign, accepting most of the blame for the incident. No complaint was made.

SCREWS

Screws are not animals. The one involved in this incident was never noted for brutality, he was just carrying on. Many screws just carry on, making themselves a nuisance, feeling good by being a nuisance and occasionally hurting somebody. But brutality is a fact. I have seen prisoners badly beaten. On no occasion did I receive anything worse than a punch on the jaw but I have seen many prisoners being kicked in the stomach, the testicles and the head, beaten with keys and whipped with the strap of a baton.

Screws have a real hangup for tidiness, but take real pleasure in wrecking cells, throwing beds in the air, pouring piss all over the cell, beds and all and scattering personal belongings everywhere. I have known this to happen to the same cell three time in one day despite the fact that prisoners must always keep their cells spick and span with the floors shining.

Several times in the four months of my incarceration various politicians visited the prison "to investigate allegations of poor conditions". Ex-prisoners had dared to allege brutality, sickening food, inadequate clothing, broken windows in many cells and inadequate sanitary provisions.

Everyone should understand that the people from slums are used to such things. Such people do not mind shitting in poes and sharing a toilet with 74 other prisoners and such people, even if they work in the kitchen, would not wash their hands anyway, even if the facilities were there3.

Politicians of all parties found the allegations to be groundless. The leader of the main Opposition party at Stormont, Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Mr. Gerald Fitt declared, "I was delighted to see no hint of sectarian friction". Belfast Prison is not a place, he declared, he would mind staying in if he had a few good books. It is the place where he, and his friends of all parties should be.

Comments

Fozzie
Apr 5 2020 15:53

According to the Irish Anarchist History site, the author of this piece was the late John McGuffin (an anarchist member of Peoples Democracy).

But McGuffin seems to have been born in 1942 (http://www.irishresistancebooks.com/john.htm). So he would have been 28 in 1970 when incarcerated in the Young Prisoners' Centre, which seems unlikely?