Officers from Magilligan Prison and the Young Offenders Centre were bussed to Maghaberry again yesterday morning to help in a mammoth prison search.
It is believed that 125 PSNI officers wearing balaclavas and 40 Army personnel dressed in boilersuits took part in the searches on both Thursday and yesterday. Police officers climbed onto roofs of buildings inside the prison complex and checked gutters and drains for possible hiding places created by inmates.
The Prison Service has refused to divulge any details of the search except to confirm again yesterday that there would be no “domestic or legal visits” and that details would be provided “with regard to the position over the weekend”.
Prison officers reported that a trace of Semtex had been found in the main gymnasium on Thursday afternoon but the Prison Service Press Office said it was not aware of any development relating to an explosive trace.
However, unconfirmed reports circulating within the jail suggested that a Press blackout had been imposed by the Governor Steve Rodford so prisoners would be kept in the dark about what was found and would not be able to learn any details via radio or television broadcasts until the entire search was completed.
Governor Rodford, who ordered the complete search of the huge prison complex, has to decide how many inmates should be unlocked today and tomorrow when normally only a reduced staff is on duty.
Prison officers fear that |tension inside the jail could lead to an altercation this morning when the first of the inmates is unlocked.
One source said last night: “They were using anything they had to bang the doors and screaming to be let out. Who knows what will happen when the full prison population is unlocked on Monday or whenever. They’re shouting threats and saying they’ll wreck the jail, it could be a tinderbox next week.”
It’s expected that the rear panels of all televisions in the entire jail will be removed in the search for explosives and other materials illegally smuggled into the jail and radios and batteries examined in case they had been hollowed out to conceal small quantities of Semtex.
“It’s a search the likes of which has not been seen here before possibly. Maghaberry has gone through a more relaxed period in a sense with the terrorist dimension scaled down from the ceasefire period,” one long serving officer at Maghaberry said last night.
“Steve Rodford has come in and ruffled a few feathers at all levels. Senior staff have been transferred and he’s basically said you do it my way or take the highway.
“He actually alerted inmates that a search was going to take place, which is what they do in English prisons and people wondered if he had lost the plot, but to be fair to him he has said that everything must be searched and the prison is being taken apart big-style.”
It’s possible that lawyers could launch claims for compensation on behalf of inmates in the courts next week because prison rules stipulate that each prisoner is entitled to one hour of exercise beyond their cell each day.
However, given the reported discovery of Semtex traces in the jail last month Governor Rodford would probably argue that the enforced confinement in cells since late on Wednesday night was justified to locate dangerous explosive materials which could have put all inmates’ lives at risk.
Last weekend a deputy governor at Maghaberry warned staff to be extra vigilant because of the risk of an explosion on Remembrance Day inside the jail.
“They must have feared there would be an Enniskillen Poppy Day repeat inside Maghaberry at a service attended by loyalists because every officer on duty last Saturday was warned of the possible dangers over the following 24 hours.
“If you used half a pound of Semtex and attached it to a heavy radiator or other heavy metal fitting it would take heads off if it exploded. That’s what happened at Crumlin Road jail in 1991 when two Loyalists were killed when one of those old heavy radiators was turned into shards of flying metal missiles using a small Semtex bomb,” one prison officer recalled.
UDA man Colin Skey and UVF man Colin Caldwell were killed in the explosion, with Caldwell reportedly suffering a direct hit with a javelin of metal that killing him.
Barely three weeks later on December 13, 1991 loyalists fired an RPG rocket at the window of a canteen in the old jail where they expected republicans to be having an evening meal before lock-up. The rocket bounced off an exterior grille without exploding and none of the IRA men inside the canteen was injured.
The biggest fear now for Governor Rodford is how |he manages the eventual unlock of 853 inmates on Monday morning, assuming the search is concluded tomorrow evening.
“Whether they find what they’re looking for or don’t, it will be very tense all next week. A wrong remark or a wrong glance could spark off a melee between inmates or between inmates and staff”, one officer warned.
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.