The Maze has been a prison without equivalent, being a place of political protest and death. For almost 30 years the prison boarded those convicted for killings and bombings committed during the IRA freedom struggle. The Maze was established after escalating violence in 1972 forced the Northern Ireland government to set up imprisonment without trial. Backed by the government in London, the Northern Irish used the so-called Special Powers Act to clear the streets. While trying to smash the IRA (as prime minister Brian Faulkner stated), over 300 suspects were arrested. Riots cost 23 peoples’ lives in the days that followed.
By the end of 1972, the number of inmates was nearing the 1,000 mark, the majority of them housed at a former airport at Long Kesh, which would become the Maze Prison.
In 1976, prison officials had allegedly no control anymore over the prisoners who then numbered 1,500. A large number of IRA paramilitaries were housed in eight new H-Blocks at the Maze. The blocks got their name because of their H-shaped form. Newly-convicted IRA-men refused to conform to the prison regime, saying that they were not common criminals and refusing to wear a prison uniform but wrapping brown bedlinen around their bodies instead. By 1978 more than 300 men had joined the protest at the Maze. As London refused to reply, the convicted started the Dirty Protests, refusing to wash and smearing their own excrement on the walls.
The even more hardlined Margaret Thatcher got into power from 1979, which forced the inmates to take the ultimate step: hunger strikes. For Bobby Sands this eventually led to his death in 1981 after more than two months of hunger strike. In September 1983, the Maze suffered the largest break-out by prisoners from a British prison. In a conscientiously planned operation, 38 gunned IRA inmates hijacked a prison lorry. Prison officer James Ferris died of a heart attack. One of the runaways was the Provisional IRA leader in the Maze, Bik McFarlane, who was later extradited from The Netherlands. Another break-out attempt was not so successful: in 1984, Benjamin Redfern tried to flee in a waste lorry but died after becoming trapped in its crushing mechanism.
In 1997, Loyalist Billy Wright was placed in a block that also housed Republicans. Although The Maze had the repution of being one of the most secure prisons in Europe, INLA inmates killed Wright with three gunshots while he was waiting in a prison van to be given temporary release.
In a desperate attempt to solve the crisis and clearly risking her political career, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam entered the Maze on the morning of January 9, 1998 to meet the Loyalists face-to-face to secure their support for the peace process.
The Good Friday Agreement meant the end of the Maze. In the deal, prisoners became eligible for early release. In the two years following the treaty, 428 captives were released, leaving just 16 inside to be released later or transferred to other units.
Main source: BBC. Thanks to ryano for his remarks.