Records of the Prisons at PRONI


Graham Jackson


Archivist, PRONI
In this illustrated essay, archivist Graham Jackson discusses the records relating to prisons that are held at the Public Record Office (PRONI) in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. As one small sampling from a vast collection of files, Jackson presents some archival documents drawn from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) archive relating to internment, Long Kesh, special category status and the plans for the Maze Cellular prison.
Preserving archival memory

There are many reasons to keep records. They allow communities to pass down and preserve collective knowledge. Records can reveal the impact – whether positive or negative – of Government actions on citizens and wider society, ensuring the accountability and transparency of Government. The Public Record Office (PRONI) is the official place of deposit for all public records in Northern Ireland.

Under the Public Records Act (NI) 1923, it is PRONI’s responsibility to preserve the archival memory and historical experience of the country.

The records held at PRONI chart the development of ‘region specific’ trends and conditions in Northern Ireland: from political to social, economic, cultural, legal, educational, constitutional and geographical. They also help to establish, provide evidence of, and protect the fundamental legal status, rights, entitlements and obligations of individuals, groups and communities in our society. Ultimately, the records held by PRONI provide evidence of past events: they help to tell the story. These archives form a part of our wider community memory.

A notable example of this is the experience in prisons during the ‘Troubles’ conflict period. Among its vast collection of records, PRONI holds numerous papers and files relating specifically to the prisons: government policy papers, correspondence, minutes of meetings, memos, and much more. The records relating to the prisons reflect a rich diversity of experience, from the staff and their families who worked there over the years, the prisoners who were held there and their families, and those involved in other ways, such as government officials, foreign diplomats, communities from which the prisoners came, political and legal representatives, human rights organisations, visiting committees, and Prison Officers’ Associations.

When the PMA recordings are transferred to PRONI, the recordings be accessible alongside this huge range of official government policy files and various private deposits.
“These archives form a part of our wider community memory.”
The Right to Know – access to closed records

Requests for information from public records held by PRONI may originate from anyone, from anywhere in the world. Many records are sought by victims and survivors of the ‘Troubles’, including legal representative groups acting on behalf of bereaved families, ex-prisoners and former security forces personnel, for example.

But beyond this key demographic of our society, a diverse array of people seek information from within the records: interested members of the public, solicitors, journalists, academics and researchers, authors, investigators, the Coroner, the Judiciary, Public Inquiries, the police and government departments.

Most requests are dealt with under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA). When an inquiry is made, PRONI must state whether or not relevant information is held. If held, it should be released to the person who requested it; before it is released, sensitive data, especially personal data belonging to other people, must be redacted (blacked out).

It is possible that some very sensitive information may be justifiably protected by one or more FOIA or DPA exemptions; in such cases, PRONI must clearly explain why it cannot be released and, importantly, extend the right to appeal.
How the records are organised

PRONI collections are organised into various different collections, usually called after the department, agency or body that created the original files – for example, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) archive and the Ministry of Home Affairs (HA) archive. The files shown in this essay come from the NIO archive.
The Northern Ireland Office archive (PRONI reference: NIO)

A wide variety of subjects are covered in great detail by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) files. Many are the files of individual Internees/detainees from loyalist or republican communities, who were arrested and held without trial on grounds of security. Requests to see these files are normally dealt with under the Data Protection Act 2018. Individual convicted loyalist or republican prisoner files sentenced through courts are also dealt with under the Data Protection Act 2018. (See also the Crown & Peace archive.)

There are hundreds of highly detailed policy and subject files covering a great many topics relating to the broader issue of the penal system in Northern Ireland during the conflict, and also shedding light on the unique wider social political situation that affected the prisons. Subjects include daily incident situation reports; major incidents (riot, death, escape, protest, etc.); prison security, including strip search protocols, escape prevention, smuggling and possession of illegal material (i.e. explosives and weapons), tunnel discovery, military protection of prisons, etc.; prisoner complaints, parole, resettlement and release; and the interception and censorship of prisoner letters.

The NIO archive also contains are files detailing visits to the prisons by the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, the Board of Visitors, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, clergy and laymen, journalists and politicians. There are many files covering Special Category Status, complex legal issues such as human rights; legislation such as Emergency Powers, Prevention of Terrorism Acts and Prison Acts. The files show the NIO response to the Campaign for Loyalist Segregation and the use of Irish literature and language; they detail the implementation of censorship both of Irish language material and Unionist cultural material. They show the story from the perspective of NI Prison personnel (Prison Officers Association, Governors, medical staff, and prison threat assessments). There are files on Sir James Hennessy’s Inquiry (1984) report on Maze security, following the 1983 mass escape. There are Secretary of State cases, Royal Prerogative of Mercy cases and Parliamentary Questions.

This is a listing of some of the material to be found in only one of several archives at PRONI that deal with the prisons. The brief selection of files below is not meant to be exhaustive, but simply to show some of the range of the archival records that are held.

From file NIO/12/41A: A list of Republican prisoner demands following an incident in 1972.

From file NIO/12/49A: A 1978 letter from Ian Paisley to Minister of State Don Concannon about a ban imposed on ‘literature on ulster heritage’.

From file NIO/12/54A: A 1976 letter from the Loyalist Detainees & Prisoners Committee to Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State, to protest the phasing out of special category status for political prisoners.

From file NIO/12/54A: Dated June 1975, this was the permissible weekly parcel which could be brought into the prison for special category prisoners: ‘no bones’ are allowed in meat, sausages should be cut lengthways, plastic combs only, specific types of potato bread and soda bread, no fancy cakes.

From file NIO/12/49A: Letter sent in May 1975 from the Governor of HMP Belfast (Crumlin Road Gaol) to the Northern Ireland Office on the issue of censorship of Irish language correspondence by prisoners (after the board of visitors raised the matter).

From file NIO/12/49A: Also on the subject of censorship of Irish language correspondence, this 1975 letter was written by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh, President of Conradh na Gaeilge, an Irish language organisation, to the UK ambassador in Ireland.

From file NIO/12/49A: Draft list by an NIO official of periodicals requested by various special category prisoners, and their security assessments.

From file NIO/12/49A: This document notes a question and answer session between a visiting committee and the prison Governor relating to the Long Kesh compounds. Issues raised include the restriction on masking tape (used in escapes), concern for relatives in recent explosions outside the prisons, and a request for more timber in Compound 21 (the Governor is concerned that there is already too much wood in that compound, and argues that it could be used in tunnels and ladders for escapes).

From file NIO/12/54A: Following the riot and fire of October 1974, this excerpt from a security assessment notes the challenges of suppressing such disturbances; it refers to the use of “toxic agents” and military force including firearms.

From file NIO/12/54A: This excerpt comes from a policy document assessing the advantages and disadvantages (from an NIO perspective) of Special Category Status.

From file NIO/12/4A: A policy assessment of education for prisoners with Special Category Status. NIO had recently announced their first detainee under 16 at Maze: “…with current trends in terrorism it would appear that others of this age are likely to be detained or otherwise confined in our institutions. This group would require compulsory education and the services of a full-time teacher.”

From file NIO/25/3/21A: This NIO memo of December 1983 notes a meeting between the UVF’s “acknowledged leader and main spokesman” Gusty Spence and Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP.

From file NIO/25/3/21A: This NIO memo illustrates the often-untold story of the Prison Officers. The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) were taking industrial action in protest at the increased tensions and associated security threat from republican and loyalist prisoners to prison staff, in the wake of the September 1983 escape.

From file 14 NIO/12/8: These handwritten notes and an annotated map, sometime between 1972 and 1975, show how the NIO debated various options for a proposed new high security prison facility; the H-Blocks or Maze Cellular would eventually open in 1976. Note the arguments against the suggestion of a ‘High Kesh’ multi-storey prison. The note at the bottom of the page reads: “Any prison at Maze site will never be able to disassociate itself from Long Kesh political prison image”.

Other files relating to the prisons held at PRONI

The Cabinet Secretariat archive (PRONI reference: CAB) These files detail security, financial and economic issues relating to Northern Ireland, as well as constitutional and political matters affecting its relations with the British Government and the Irish Free State, from Partition to the early 1970s.

The Ministry of Home Affairs archive (PRONI reference: HA) These files tell the official story from the security point of view until 1972. The Ministry was responsible for criminal justice, policing, prisons, emergency legislation, etc. After 1972, when Direct Rule was imposed, the Northern Ireland Office took over this role. 

The Central Secretariat archive (PRONI reference: CENT) These files show the complex work of the Cabinet Secretariat who provided detailed ‘advice and guidance’ to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This archive covers a broad spectrum of critical strategic and operational security matters and the wider political/constitutional/economic/cultural and social developments, from the early 1970s to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Crown and Peace archive (PRONI reference: various, depending on the geographic jurisdiction of the case – ANT, ARM, BELF, DOW, FER, LOND and TYR) These files contain the Crown and Appeals Court files of those accused of politically motivated offences, associated with the Director of Public Prosecutions archive. It also includes the work of the Coroner in investigating sudden, unnatural or violent death.

Privately deposited archives (PRONI reference: D, T, MIC) These records are donated by members of the public, and may include family papers, propaganda leaflets, art, correspondence, photographs and diaries. As an archive deposited by an independent institution (Queen’s University), the PMA collection comes under this category. The PMA catalogue reference at PRONI is D4616, which includes project admin records (D4616/1); audio-visual records (i.e. the participant recordings plus site footage and documentary films – D4616/2); and photographs of Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh (D4616/3).

Conflict Archive on the Internet – CAIN: CAIN is the internationally recognised resource on the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ – information and source material on the ‘Troubles’ conflict and Northern Ireland politics post 1968. It is part of Access Research Knowledge (www.ark.ac.uk), a joint resource between the Ulster University and Queens University, Belfast, providing access to social and political material on Northern Ireland. A growing collection of PRONI records is housed on the ‘PRONI Records on CAIN’ section. At the time of writing (2020) the collection spans the years 1968 – 1992 and includes 2,200 PRONI public records (about 9,300 pages). See more at https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/proni/list-year.html