Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Strangeways: Could it Happen Again?

The 25th anniversary of the start of the prison riot that led to the devastation of Manchester’s HMP Strangeways on 1 April has been marked by the broadcasting of a fascinating television documentary on BBC2. During the programme we heard first-hand accounts of the 25-day standoff from the former governor, ex-prison officers and several former inmates who led the protests.

HMP Manchester (aka Strangeways)
What was particularly striking were the all too familiar complaints concerning overcrowding of prison wings and the frustrations fuelled by a lack of activities that led to 23-hour bang up. If it hadn’t been for the grainy 1990s news footage and the severely dated haircuts of both screws and cons, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a current affairs programme probing the prison crisis of today.

Even former members of the Strangeways staff highlighted the problems of having too many men crammed into Victorian-era cells designed for single occupancy. However, although the repellent practice of ‘slopping out’ buckets and chamberpots may have ended, the prospect of having an hour of exercise and fresh air every day back then might be seen as an improvement by many prisoners who consider themselves lucky to get 30 minutes these days – that is assuming it isn’t cancelled altogether owing to staff shortages.

Another key factor in the Strangeways riot was the intense media interest, especially in the men who were holding out on the roof. This was a mass media event, covered daily by an army of journalists and photographers armed with telephoto lenses.

Up on the roof
What hasn’t changed much is the willingness of the tabloids to play on popular fears of prisons and prisoners. As one of the front page ‘splashes’ featured in the BBC documentary proclaimed: “20 dead”. In fact, the final death toll was two: one prisoner who died following a severe beating from fellow inmates and a prison officer who fell ill and died during the standoff.

Recent interviews with Lord Woolf, the retired Lord Chief Justice who chaired the public enquiry into the Strangeways riot, have raised speculation that we might face similar incidents today. Indeed, Lord Woolf himself has warned that in several significant respects penal policies have gone backwards in recent years and that poor conditions in our prisons are similar to those that led to the protests at Strangeways in 1990.

What became evident during the recent documentary is that the original intention of the protesters did not include a full scale riot. According to the planners, their intention had been to stage a vocal sit-in protest in the prison chapel in order to draw attention to grievances, including poor conditions. Like so many peaceful demonstrations, however, events soon slipped out of the protest leaders’ control and escalated into mass destruction of the prison fabric, as well as violent attacks on other inmates – particularly suspected sex offenders – and violence aimed at prison staff, over 140 of whom were injured.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from the lead up to the actual riot and that is just how volatile prisons can be, especially when there is widespread resentment seething just below the surface. Even a peaceful protest can easily escalate into something much darker and more violent as tensions and frustrations lead to an outpouring of anger and violence. As one former prisoner observed in his interview for the BBC documentary: “It was payback time.”

HMP Moorland: riots in 2010
In some ways we don’t really need to debate whether another Strangeways riot could occur today. There has already been a series of disturbances in our prisons over the past few years. Some incidents have been minor, although others – such as the trashing of two wings at Doncaster’s HMP Moorland in 2010 and the burning of parts of HMP Ford in 2011 – have been much more serious.

There have also been significant incidents at HMP High Down in 2013 and at HMP Ranby and HMP Oakwood during 2014. Any one of these examples of what the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) prefers to call ‘concerted indiscipline’ could easily have spiraled out of control and escalated into full scale prison riots or even sieges.

The other key fact is that you don’t need a majority of prisoners to start rioting. A lesser known feature of the Strangeways riot is that around 1,000 of the prisoners made their own escape from the chaos and handed themselves into prison staff who were waiting outside. Even at the height of the 25-day protest, there were less than 250 inmates involved – a figure that rapidly dropped to 25 by the 11th day of the crisis. By the end of the siege there was just a handful left on the roof.

Strangeways ablaze in 1990
One of the main outcomes of the Strangeways riot was reform of a prison system that even some of its own officers accepted was still rooted in the Victorian era. Conditions of incarceration were made less austere and reforms were introduced.

Following the findings of the Woolf enquiry there was a recognition of the truth expressed in Parliament by Roy Hattersley, the Labour shadow home secretary at the time of the 1990 riot, that: “If we treat men like animals we shouldn’t be surprised if they behave like animals.” Across the floor of the House we saw the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, glowering. However, even she couldn’t turn the tide. It seemed that the era of Victorian prisons was passing forever.

And yet in 2015 we are again having the debate about overcrowding and the warehousing of two or three adult men in a tiny cell that was built to house one person. Likewise, some prisons are now running almost permanent ‘restricted regimes’ where prisoners are locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours per day, with little access to education, employment or training. Tensions in some jails are running high and any minor incident has the potential to set off a much greater outburst of violence and aggression.

No need for blackboards these days
In some respects the situation is even more dangerous today than it was 25 years ago. For a start there were no illicit mobile phones back in 1990. Now most prison wings have contraband handsets and SIM cards circulating. Whereas the Strangeways protesters had to make use of blackboards and chalk to get their messages out to the watching media, these days half the cons would be calling and texting the media or, just as likely, taking ‘selfies’ amid the wreckage of a prison wing.

This ability to access illicit phones would also certainly lead to protesters contacting their mates in other prisons to spread the word. Although there were copycat incidents at other jails back in 1990, news of a major incident will be circulating throughout the prison estate within hours or even minutes, even if there is a media blackout on reporting.

Prisoners are also well aware that if there were to be simultaneous incidents at multiple prisons at the same time, the overstretched Prison Service would simply not have the staffing required to restore control across the country. Like the proverbial toppling dominoes, violent disorder could spread literally like fire across our prisons.

Chronic staff shortages in many prisons also means that there would be less chance of 400 specially-trained officers – as the Prison Service had available to deploy at Strangeways – being mustered. Moreover, having fewer prison staff than were employed back in 1990, the risk of officers losing control of a wing – or even a whole prison – are that much greater.

Aftermath of the Strangeways riot
Every prison governor’s nightmare scenario is a siege with hostages having been taken. In that respect the Strangeways riot could have been much worse than it was. Officers and other prison staff withdrew in April 1990 and the Prison Service made the decision not to send in the 400-strong riot squad to retake control of the jail. No hostages were paraded on the roofs or threatened with execution. Despite the tile throwing, events at Strangeways assumed a surreal tone with groups of prisoners dancing on the roof to pop music being blasted out from loudspeakers.

So could another Strangeways riot occur again today? Although, as I’ve observed in previous blogs, I think a full scale riot and siege on that scale is unlikely I also believe that the pressure-cooker environment in our prisons has gone beyond crisis point. In some establishments it could only require a minor incident to escalate into serious violence and rioting – something that is even more likely when prisons are severely short-staffed.

Another unknown element is the potential impact of so-called legal highs which are easily available on most prison wings. Prisoners under the influence of these substances can and do behave much less rationally. In such an environment things could easily get out of hand very quickly.

As the Strangeways riot demonstrated, most prisoners are actually quite a conservative lot – as can be seen from the vast majority who exited at the first available opportunity. Very few want to run the risk of being prosecuted for prison mutiny and having an extra nine or ten years added on top of their existing sentences. However, some others may feel that they have little or nothing to lose and decide that “payback time” has finally arrived. If they do, then most of the conditions would seem to be ripe for some serious incidents of ‘concerned indiscipline’ over the hot summer months.

As the anonymous prison officer who participated in this blog’s recent Q&A observed, at the moment our prisons are a “ticking bomb” with violence on the increase. There may be trouble ahead.


  1. A film crew visited HMP Strangeways prior to the riots, a few cons had voiced their concerns about the poor prison conditions already.

    1. Very true and some of the pre-riot footage was used in the BBC documentary. I think that it is very often the case that there are warnings before real trouble starts. The problem is that these are usually at grassroots level and those who run the prison system aren't very good at listening to wing staff or inmates.

      There are lots of red flags going up at the moment over current conditions, but it seems that no-one down in the MoJ or NOMS is really interested. By the time news of a major riot reaches the ears of the politicians it will all be too late... just like it was in April 1990.

  2. Hi Alex my money is on HMP Nottinghan going up, my son has was recently transferd from there and 23 hour lock ups are ,no work for a majority of the prisoners. While wating for his transfer all his stuff was stolen from his cell while he was getting his meds the only thing they left him were the clothes he was wearing.he was being transferd the next day his cell mate was the only person who knew he was going and left the cell door open?.He reported this to a prison officer and was told to F***K off and get back to his cell. As he said this place is a shit hole he was glad to get out of there. By the way Alex i enjoy your bloggs

    1. Thanks for your comments. I've also heard very bad things about Nottingham for a while and I've yet to meet a single inmate who has a good word to say about the place. I'm told food is particularly awful (and that was confirmed by a lad who worked on the servery for six months).

      Your son's experience of having all his stuff stolen really doesn't surprise me at all, I'm afraid. One of the problems with jails like Nottingham is that it is a Cat-B local with people coming and going all the time (in straight from court or on remand and then either transferred to other nicks or released). There's not much loyalty among the cons, so pad theft is a major problem unless you already have mates you know who will watch your back.

      Hopefully he'll put in a claim for the stolen property. I know one lad who got a county court judgement (CCJ) against his prison when his property disappeared. I hope his new nick is better than Nottingham!

    2. It's actually quite easy to file a county court claim if property goes missing from your cell or the prison loses it/confiscates it. Given that it is highly unlikely your son will get compensated by the prison if you go down the internal complaints route. The prison has a duty of care in respect of your property even when it is in your cell i.e. in possession if they do not provide a means for you to keep the property safe when not in your cell. I have won two cases against HMP Holloway and HMP Bronzefield in the past couple of years in respect of property loss and there was also another prisoner (Kevan Thakrar) who also won a county court judgement about lost property which the media got all het up about as he was involved in an attack on some prison officers some time ago. So there is caselaw as well as the relevant PSI's to back up the claim. Unfortunately unless you can pay a prison law solicitor to do the case you have to do it yourself in the county court as legal aid is no longer available for property claims thanks to Grayling but it is relatively easy to file in the county court even from inside prison and I am happy to give your son some pointers on how to do so if he wants them.


    3. Hi Alison, thanks for your helpful advice. Lost, missing or stolen property is a widespread problem in prisons, so I'm sure this information will be of interest to many readers, including families of serving prisoners.

  3. Interesting article in the Independent about private prisons v publicly run prisons:

    1. Thanks for the link. A very interesting article that has already provoked some lively debate on Twitter. In reality, the HM Inspectorate reports on many of the private sector prisons have already flagged up these issues. What is concerning is that many public sector prisons now seem to be engaged in a similar race to the bottom as a result of underfunding, understaffing and overcrowding.

  4. Interesting radio 4 piece about rehabilitation of sex offenders at HMP Whatton, on iplayer here:

    The story seemed to be that they are doing a good job of rehabilitation. I was surprised, as the usual view that I have come across is that the courses for addressing offending behaviour are just a meaningless box-ticking exercise.

    The re-offending rate of only 6% did seem like a great success.

    I would be interested in your views, and those of any contacts you may have inside.

    1. Thanks for flagging up this programme. I haven't yet listened to it, but did read the article in The Guardian which includes an interview with the governor.

      It is a complex issue. There are two main schools of thought about the very low recidivism rate for sexual offending. One is that sex offender treatment programmes, backed-up with (often) life-long monitoring on release and a ban on access to potential victims is effective. The other view is that once caught, sex offenders become even more devious and so avoid being detected.

      In general, I'm sceptical about most offending behaviour programmes and courses (as an observer, since I've never participated in any), mainly because I know many prisoners who have completed critical thinking programmes and victim awareness courses, passed with flying colours and then been released to reoffend yet again. However, I've also met people inside who have told me that the courses they've undertaken were extremely useful in helping them to understand why they committed criminal offences, so I do try to remain as open-minded about this issue as I can.

  5. Have you heard of "Concerted Indicipline"?
    Bomb threats and escapes are classed as "Miscellaneous" while hunger strikes are known as "Food refusal" in privately run Prisons.

    1. Thanks for your question. I've actually blogged a post on this very issue: There is, officially speaking, now no real difference between two cons refusing to return to their cells and a full scale riot!

  6. Because of the psychological and emotional burdens of being isolated from the family and the extremely stressful life in jail, prisoners sometimes couldn't contain their emotions and blurt them out on some of the other inmates. When this happens a riot is almost a possibility. I think, giving the prisoners a better jail environment and some occasional unlimited jail calls could make a little difference especially in lessening the incidences of riots where other people and police officers could get terribly hurt.

  7. Because of the psychological and emotional burdens of being isolated from the family and the extremely stressful life in jail, prisoners sometimes couldn't contain their emotions and blurt them out on some of the other inmates. When this happens a riot is almost a possibility. I think, giving the prisoners a better jail environment and some occasional unlimited jail calls could make a little difference especially in lessening the incidences of riots where other people and police officers could get terribly hurt.

  8. Because of the psychological and emotional burdens of being isolated from the family and the extremely stressful life in jail, prisoners sometimes couldn't contain their emotions and blurt them out on some of the other inmates. When this happens a riot is almost a possibility. I think, giving the prisoners a better jail environment and some occasional unlimited jail calls could make a little difference especially in lessening the incidences of riots where other people and police officers could get terribly hurt.

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