Former prisoners and jail staff have recorded their memories of life inside for a University of Ulster online archive. Ivan Little reports
They are the very essence of ‘inside’ stories. For researchers from an Ulster university have recorded the memories of 175 former prisoners and jail staff for a massive archive about life behind bars during the Troubles.
But officials from the University of Ulster have insisted there’s no chance of a repeat of the legal wrangle over disclosures by ex-terrorists to Boston College who have faced demands from the British Government to hand over tapes and transcripts.
The producers of the Prisons Memory Archive which is readily available on an internet website veered away from questions which could have implicated the participants or any of their terrorist colleagues in any crimes.
Researchers filmed former prisoners returning to the Maze and Armagh womens' jail but so far they have only received enough funding to put up 35 stories from the women’s jail on the website.
The aim is to make all 175 stories which also include recollections from relatives of the inmates, from prison visitors, from probation officers and teachers all available on the internet.
Among the participants are Sinn Fein MLA and Maze jailbreaker Gerry Kelly and the leader of the PUP and former UVF lifer Billy Hutchinson.
The director of the project Cahal McLaughlin, a senior lecturer in media studies at the university says it took patience and hard work to turn the idea for the archive into reality.
The twin difficulties were getting access to the prisons and persuading people to take part.
McLaughlin said: “Everyone we filmed had concerns about the future use of the material, and what persuaded them was that they have co-ownership of the material and can withdraw their interview at any time.”
McLaughlin rejected the idea of turning all the interviews into a documentary because he didn’t want to lose 90% of his material in a one-off film.
But the university has produced a half-hour film telling the stories of victims who have lost loved ones in attacks on the security forces, in sectarian murders and in killings which were carried out by police agents.
McLaughlin says of Unheard Voices: “This short film has recorded powerful collections of the move away of violence, as the themes of loss, recovery, strength and remembering are reflected through trauma, grief and hope.”
Josie Dowds was a Republican prisoner who was seven months pregnant when she went into Armagh jail. She gave birth to her son Kevin in the jail and in accordance with prison rules she was allowed to keep him with her for just a few months before he was taken away from her.
She says: “Kevin was in a cot beside me. He didn’t lose out on love and affection because there were plenty of people here to give it.
“He was the only baby here and his infectious giggle could be heard all over the wing. I was never short of babysitters if I wanted to have a bath or just sometime on my own. The day he went out of here was very hard on everyone not just myself.
“All the girls were crying when I had to hand him over. I didn’t want company after he went out. I did three years here and I don’t know how I did it but like everything else you had to do it.”
Jennifer McCann is a Sinn Fein politician who is a member of the Stormont Assembly. She was sentenced to 20 years for terrorist offences.
In her time as a Republican prisoner she and her colleagues refused to work which meant they were locked up in their cells for most of the day.
“We were let out for a short time to wash and to empty our chamber pots in the mornings. We ate in our cells and we got an hour’s exercise in the afternoons and we were allowed a small period of time for association in the evenings but not at the weekends.
“We lost a day’s remission for every day we wouldn’t work,” says McCann who clearly remembers hearing that Bobby Sands had died on hunger strike in the Maze in 1981.
“There used to be heating pipes which ran through the cells. We had smuggled in small crystallised radios which were made on the outside and I passed on the news that he had died.”
The Republican remand prisoner
Angela Nelson was 17 when she was sent to Armagh as a remand prisoner in May 1973. “Every prisoner had to come into the circle in the jail and be told which cell they would be in.
“Remand prisoners were sent up into one section and internees were put up into A wing which housed sentenced Republican prisoners. I had just come here after 90 hours of interrogation by detectives in Townhall Street police station in Belfast. One detective was particularly nasty and he threatened to come to Armagh during the night and rape me.
“I would never have been here if it hadn’t been for the struggle happening outside. I wasn’t raised a Republican.
“My grandfather was actually a Protestant from Lisburn.”
The loyalist prisoner
Jacqui Upton was in 1983 one of only five female Protestant prisoners in one wing of Armagh jail where there were 24 Catholic inmates. The authorities refused to grant segregation and there were hunger strikes and dirty protests. “It was a delicate time,” says Jacqui Upton.
One of the Protestant women was freed on appeal and the other three were released shortly afterwards. “So I was left as the only Protestant woman on the wing,” she says.
“I chose not to come out of my cell because it was very intimidating. You couldn’t have walked down the wing because the Catholic women were blocking the way.”
She says she believes the authorities wouldn’t move her to another wing which did have loyalist prisoners because that would have meant there was de facto segregation.
“I had a prison officer with me all the time and I had guarantees that I would be alright. But it was mental torture. Women were more bitchy than men.
“However I used to have a free run of the whole wing to myself on a Saturday night as the rest of them went to Irish classes. It was absolutely brilliant.”
The odd MAN out
William ‘Plum’ Smith has been one of the best known faces in loyalism for decades, having been part of the Progressive Unionist Party team who read out the ceasefire statement in 1994.
But he was one of the men who were held for a time in the women’s prison in Armagh.
“They moved the women off the top landing and moved us in,” he says “I was only 18 at the time.
“I remember my cell was different from the women’s. We had nowhere to associate and we were confined to one small part of the prison which became our home.
“We had nowhere to go or exercise because one yard was full of Republicans and the other was full of women.”
Loyalists like Smith went to church services three times every Sunday.
“We were locked in our cells every Sunday because of staff shortages. So we put our names down for the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland services just to get out. Everyone thought we were converted but we weren’t.”
If you would like to host a screening of Unheard Voices or find out more about the Prisons Memory Archive log on to: www.prisonsmemoryarchive.com
From prisoners to paying guests
- Built between 1780 and 1852 Armagh Gaol served as Northern Ireland’s only female prison during the Troubles until its closure in 1986 when all prisoners were transferred to Maghaberry Prison in Lisburn.
- At the height of the conflict, the number of female political prisoners grew from two in 1971 to more than 100 by 1976
- Due to the growing prison population, Armagh also housed male remand and sentenced prisoners
There are plans to redevelop the site of the jail as a hotel