For republicans the men and women behind bars have often been as important for propaganda purposes as actions on the street. One only has to cast one's mind back to the emotions aroused by the republican hunger strike in the Maze and the political consequences and, more immediately, the surge in terrorism which ensued.
Therefore it should not be a great surprise that tensions are rising within the dissident republican wing at Maghaberry Prison. The dissidents' campaign is being largely contained by the combined work of the intelligence services and policing on the ground, and the fact that some 50 republican suspects are in the jail is testament to that work.
But it has been noticeable recently that republicans are trying to ratchet up support through demonstrations and, now, through complaints about the prison regime. That is worrying for those working in the Prison Service. During the Provisional IRA campaign 29 officers were murdered and two years ago republican dissidents shot dead officer David Black as he was on his way to work in Maghaberry.
Prison officers are on the front line, daily coming into contact with dangerous criminals and reductions in staffing levels has made their work more stressful.
While the Prison Service has to work within a budget like every other Government agency, the authorities must take into account the circumstances within this jail which requires a greater level of security than many others throughout the UK.
A one-size-fits-all ratio of officers to prisoners should not apply here.
Efforts must be made to defuse the tension within Maghaberry and that includes examining prisoners' complaints to see if any are justified. But, of course, any regime must not allow security to be compromised and the welfare of the staff working the jail must also be taken full account of.
Prison officers do a very demanding job and face particular dangers in Northern Ireland. This is an issue which must not be allowed to fester on or be manipulated for ulterior motives.