Female dissident republican inmates have been given a brand new wing at Hydebank Women's Prison at an "obscene" cost of almost £500,000 to taxpayers - because they refuse to mix with other lags.
The controversial Fern 4 unit was purposely built to cater for Christine Connor, who was jailed for 20 years last month for trying to kill police officers.
It is also now home to Amanda McCabe, known as Mandy Duffy, and Sharon Jordan, both of whom are facing charges of directing the New IRA's terror campaign.
Prison Service bosses have admitted shelling out £482,000 of public money to overhaul the Fern 4 complex to suit the trio's needs as they refuse to associate with other inmates, claiming to be political prisoners.
The price includes furniture bought from Ikea, expensive seating, pricey electrical equipment and a huge state-of-the-art TV mounted on a common room wall.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie has branded the huge spend as "obscene", and warned the cost of running Hydebank's dissident wing will be much higher. He has also tabled several Assembly questions to Justice Minister Naomi Long demanding answers.
"To spend £482,000 on jail accommodation for one convicted terrorist and two females charged with terrorist offences is obscene," said the Upper Bann Assemblyman.
"This is nearly half a million pounds being used to create a separated prison regime where special treatment will be afforded to those convicted or charged with terrorist offences.
"The true cost will be much more as the yearly running costs will continue to strip services from other prisoners."
Confirming the £482,000 Fern 4 cost, a Prison Service spokesman said: "It is the responsibility of the Prison Service to hold those placed in our care in safe, decent and secure accommodation. An unused area of Hydebank Wood has been converted into a new unit capable of accommodating women separately from the main population.
"This required extensive internal and external structural, mechanical and electrical work to deliver significant changes to the security infrastructure and facilities, and the creation of a recreation area. This was completed in two weeks at an approximate cost of £482,000."
A similar wing on Roe House at the all-male Maghaberry Prison holding 25 dissident republican inmates has a yearly running cost of £2m.
Doug Beattie wants to see both scrapped with paramilitary prisoners not afforded any special status and held on regular criminal wings.
The Ulster Unionist justice spokesman added: "This is not the fault of the Prison Service, it's a political issue that we have allowed to continue.
"A motion I tabled in 2016 to end the separated regime over eight years would have given us a roadmap to deal with the issue.
"However, it was voted down so those who opposed it need to explain their reasons why."
Sunday Life understands that plans to establish a dedicated dissident wing at Hydebank were put in place after Christine Connor (34) was jailed for 20 years at the end of August for a blast bomb attack on a police patrol in north Belfast.
This was before Mandy Duffy (49) and Sharon Jordan (45) were remanded in custody on charges of directing terrorism following the arrests of nine dissident republicans during the MI5-led Operation Arbacia which targeted the New IRA.
A prison source said: "Christine Connor was on a segregated unit away from other female inmates before Mandy Duffy and Sharon Jordan were remanded.
"Having all three of them in Hydebank at the same time speeded up the process of refurbishing Fern 4. It's far and away the most modern unit in the entire jail and all the other female prisoners and young male offenders are jealous.
"They see the dissidents as getting preferential treatment." The New IRA's political wing Saoradh, which represents Christine Connor, Mandy Duffy and Sharon Jordan, welcomed their move to a segregated unit.
It said: "The Saoradh POW is glad to announce that all our comrades recently imprisoned at the behest of MI5 are now on their respective wings with their fellow comrades. Female republican prisoners are now on Fern 4 within Hydebank."
Being separated from the other female inmates at Hydebank means Connor, Duffy and Jordan will not have to mix with notorious killers like Hazel Stewart, who murdered husband Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell, and Karen Walsh who beat pensioner Maire Rankin to death.
The dissident trio will also avoid encountering loyalists such as the Nicholl twins from Carrickfergus, Laura and Nicola, who took part in the Union flag protests and are behind bars regularly.
The 58 female prisoners held in Hydebank are sometimes referred to disparagingly by staff as the 'Witches of East Wing'.
According to the latest situation report at the jail, there are also 67 young male offenders and two immigration detainees caged there, bringing its overall population to 127.
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