Life inside the Maze prison is tense enough at the best of times, but after last weekend's murder of the Loyalist Billy Wright, the atmosphere has worsened considerably. An insight into what it is really like comes from a serving prison officer, and a former (Loyalist) inmate.

According to the officer, warders preparing to search Loyalist wings are expecting trouble to erupt. "Loyalist prisoners do not believe they should have their cells searched because they are saying they have done nothing wrong," he said. "If we do go ahead and search, then it's quite likely the Loyalists will `rack-up' and start to riot or barricade themselves in.

"If they do it becomes more difficult for us because we're the ones on the receiving end of their anger. The management make the rules in the prison but it's the Tom, Dick and Harrys working on the wings that get the brunt of the trouble."

The former inmate of the Maze - he served a life sentence for murder - claims there are two aspects of what will be going on inside the prison, one for public consumption via the media and an internal solution to the security problems.

"The public perception of this situation is that there are all these searches going on inside the prison and increased security, but I'm sure the leaderships have been assured privately by the prison officials that if they're given a week or two to get this over and the media off their back then it will all die out. Going on past experience everything will be back to normal in a couple of weeks."

The prison officer agreed with this interpretation and said that this was already happening. "These searches that are being carried out are a joke. What's happening is that prison officers are going into wings and saying to the OC, `I want to search the cells', and the OC then tells them what cells can be searched.

"The new regime is only about going into one wing a week [there are four wings in an H block and eight H blocks at the Maze] and searching five cells. What's the point in that? They'll be letting the prisoners search themselves next."

The former prisoner believes that the availability of guns in the Maze is not the issue, as weapons have always been available. "I wouldn't say it was easy to get weapons but if you needed one you could get it. Usually weapons were brought in for specific reasons. If the thing they had been brought in for was aborted, or it had happened and the weapon hadn't been discovered they would be dumped for the warders to find.

"The only difference between the Billy Wright thing and the late 80s was that in the 80s nobody killed anybody because there was a sort of agreement. Everybody was in there and there was no point in killing each other in prison. It's not the availability of weapons that killed Wright - the Maze prison will always have guns - the difference today is that some prisoners at leadership level have decided to kill each other."

Colin Blackstock