Hundreds of prison officers and specialist police search teams are involved in an operation at Maghaberry Prison which began yesterday morning. Prisoners remained locked in their cells throughout yesterday while the search was conducted.
The search of the Category A prison is expected to continue throughout today and could continue over the weekend.
In a statement new Governor Steve Rodford said the search was designed to safeguard the lives of prisoners, staff and visitors to the Co Antrim jail.
But prison officers say the primary objective of the search is to recover a small quantity of Semtex explosive and other bomb component parts believed to have been smuggled into the prison over the summer.
Unconfirmed reports say that traces of a chemical used in the manufacture of Semtex was found at up to 15 locations around the prison including in two residential houses and on two chairs in the visitors’ area.
The Prison Service confirmed yesterday that on Wednesday evening the day shift of prison officers was searched before they were allowed to leave Maghaberry to go home.
Boots and tunics were removed and searched and officers were padded down to check if any contraband was being smuggled out of the jail.
“It’s standard practice in England before a search is begun that the evening before, a search of prison officers is carried out before they leave the jail just in case inmates became aware of the plan and tried to get an officer to smuggle something out”, one senior Prison Service official said.
Nothing was found during the search of prison officers and yesterday morning the extensive search of the jail went ahead as planned.
Officers serving at the jail say such an extensive search of Maghaberry was last conducted in the 1990s and lasted for more than three days.
One officer said: “Everything from bunks to electrical sockets will be unscrewed, taken apart and searched. The Governor is correct when he says this is the type of thorough search that should take place periodically but at the moment the buzz is that they’re specifically searching for Semtex and other items that could make a bomb.”
On Saturday a Deputy Governor serving at Maghaberry warned staff to be on high alert because of concern that a major incident could occur at the jail over the Remembrance Day period.
No further details were given to staff but it prompted speculation that dissident republicans had planned to cause an explosion inside the complex on Sunday.
In a statement yesterday the Prison Service apologised for the cancellation of all visits yesterday and said it hoped to restore legal and other visits as soon as possible.