Urine, blood, vomit, and faeces. Smeared over prison cell walls, floors, and ceilings. It sounds like the aftermath of something traumatic, let alone a situation prisoners have deliberately created.

But that’s exactly what a dirty protest is.

A dirty protest is when a prisoner willingly chooses to urinate or defecate without the use of the appropriate facilities provided in an act of non-compliance or protest.

Although the first dirty protest happened in prison, and that’s where they most commonly happen, they have been known to occur in public spaces as part of both political and personal protests.

While modern dirty protests are usually localised and one-off incidents, that’s not how they’ve always been. The first reported dirty protest – and perhaps the largest – dates back to the 1970s.

The dangers of dirty protests

In the UK, prison authorities are responsible for the welfare of inmates during their detainment. This includes the provision of hygienic prison and holding cells. While it’s not always possible to stop a dirty protest from happening, it is essential for the clean up and disinfection of the affected areas as soon as possible to help prevent the spread of disease, which is a particular risk in confined spaces like prisons.

Tuberculosis, HIV, and Hepatitis C are just some of the risks to prison staff and other inmates during a dirty protest where bodily fluids, including blood and faeces, are smeared across cell walls or even communal areas.

Cleaning the affected areas requires specialist personal protective equipment (PPE) and the necessary products and equipment to fully clean and sanatise the areas.

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The history of dirty protests

Dirty protests originally began during an escalation which formed part of a five-year protest carried out by the IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) during “The Troubles” which lasted from the late ‘70s through to the early ‘80s.

In July 1972, Special Category Status was introduced for convicted paramilitary prisoners which saw them treated with a degree of ‘status’, for example, not having to wear military uniform or do prison work.

But just years later, in 1976, and as part of the policy of criminalisation, the British government brought an end to Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. This meant that newly convicted prisoners were to be sent to the new Maze prison which was replacing the former interment units at Long Kesh.

The prisoners immediately began a protest against the removal of their status, saying that they were being treated as common criminals when they were really political prisoners imprisoned for fighting a war against the British military presence.

The withdrawal of the Special Category Status caused relationships between the prisoners and prison officers to deteriorate. And in early 1976, the IRA leaders in prison asked the IRA army council to start assassinating prison officers, stating that they are prepared to die for political status and those who try to take it away should be prepared to pay the same price. Shortly after, the first prison officer was shot, with a total of nineteen prison officers killed during the five-year protests.

The blanket protest

On 14th September 1976, a newly convicted prisoner by the name of Kieran Nugent began the ‘blanket protest’ which would later escalate. The blanket protest saw IRA and INLA prisoners refuse to wear prison uniform, like common convicts. Instead, they opted to go either completely naked or fashioned garments from prison blankets.

Other prisoners began to join the protest and were initially allowed to wear the blankets during their exercise period. But it wasn’t long before they were ordered to leave the blankets in their cells. Prison rules stated that uniform must be worn when leaving cells so ultimately, it meant that those taking part in the blanket protest were confined to their cells 24 hours a day.

The prison governor ordered the protesters to wear uniform every two weeks, which they refused. This resulted in punishment and along with refusing to comply to prison rules, the protesters saw multiple punishments, including the loss of remission, the loss of visits, and only being allowed one censored letter in and out of the prison per month. This one letter per month would be their only contact with the outside world.

With the assassination of prison staff and the ongoing blanket protest, relations between prisoners and prison officers were tense. In March 1978, some prisoners began to refuse to leave their cells to use the shower or toilet facilities due to fear of attacks by prison staff. Subsequently, the prisoners were provided with wash-hand basins for their cells. In a continued conflict, the prisoners requested for the installation of showers in their cells, but this was refused and as a result, the prisoners stopped using the wash-hand basins.

The dirty protest

The end of April 1978 saw the beginning of dirty protests when a fight broke out between a prisoner and prison officer. The prisoner was taken away to solitary confinement and news soon spread among the prisoners that he had been badly beaten.

In response to the news, prisoners began to smash the furniture within their cells, so prison staff began removing the remaining furniture. Subsequently, prisoners began refusing to leave their cells to stop the officers from clearing them.

As the prisoners were not leaving their cells, this meant that their chamber pots were also not being emptied. This soon saw things escalate into what we know as the ‘dirty protest’.

Instead of emptying their chamber pots as usual, the contents were instead smeared across prison cell walls. The prison authorities attempted to keep the cells clean by breaking cell windows and spraying disinfectant into the cells. The prisoners were then temporarily removed while prison staff dressed in rubber suits went in with steam hoses to clean the walls.

However, the attempts were short lived. As soon as the prisoners returned to their cells, they would resume their protest by dirtying the walls once more.

By mid-1978, it is estimated that there were between 250 and 300 protesting prisoners and the protest had started to gain media coverage world wide. With no sign of back down by the British government, the protest continued and by late 1979, nine out of ten newly arriving prisoners were choosing to join the protest.

The dirty protest soon spread to other prisons. In February 1980, over thirty prisoners in Armagh Women’s Prison joined the dirty protest. As they could already wear their own clothes, they didn’t join in with the blanket protest and instead, showed their support by smearing menstrual blood over their cell walls.

The hunger strike

Following both the blanket and dirty protest, several IRA members began a hunger strike on 27th October 1980. This was aimed at restoring political status for paramilitary prisoners by securing five demands:

  1. The right not to wear a prison uniform
  2. The right not to do prison work
  3. The right of free association with other prisoners and to organise educational and recreational pursuits
  4. The right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week
  5. The full restoration of remission lost through the previous protests

The strike lasted for sixty-three days. With one prisoner having slipped in and out of a coma and now on the brink of death, and with the government seemingly having conceded to the essence of the five demands, the hunger strike was called off.

But in January 1981, it became clear that the five demands had not been conceded at all and the hunger strike began again on 1st March, with the dirty protest ending the following day.

Months later, the hunger strike eventually ended on 3rd October, but by this time, two of the prisoners taking part in the hunger strike had died. They starved to death. Two days after the end of the second hunger strike, the incoming Northern Ireland Secretary, Jim Prior, announced a number of changes in prison policy.

He announced that from then on, all paramilitary prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times, as well as conceding to the rest of the five demands except for the right not to do prison work. However, this demand was effectively granted following the Maze prison escape in 1983 after which, the prison workshops were closed due to the associated security risks.

Cleaning after a dirty protest

Although the dirty protest during The Troubles is arguably the largest of its type, the cleanup required afterwards is just as important.

After a dirty protest, it’s essential that the area is cleaned and sanatised as soon as possible, especially somewhere like prisons where having out-of-bound areas can cause significant disruption.

In-house cleaning is often impractical as staff are already stretched dealing with the protest and keeping the prisoners out of the affected areas.

Employing a third-party who specialise in biohazard and hygiene cleaning is often the best choice. Not only does it keep prison staff free to supervise the prisoners and keep the prison under control, but it ensures that the prison authorities are adhering to their responsibilities of providing clean and hygienic prison cells.

Just because something looks clean, doesn’t mean it is. Specialist hygiene cleaners are able to complete ATP swab testing to prove that an area is clean and at acceptable levels, free from pathogens and bacteria.

For help getting your prison back to normality following a dirty protest -whatever the scale -contact us today. We can be with you in a matter of hours and have Technicians specially trained in biohazard and hygiene cleaning.

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