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25 Years On From the Strangeways Riots, Britain's Prisons are on the Brink of Exploding Again

A recently released ex-con told me he thinks Strangeways prison is going to kick off again.

by Alexander Reynolds
03 April 2015, 5:00am

Alan Lord, one of the convicts, on the roof of Strangeways prison displays a message to the onlooking media (Photos courtesy of Alan Lord)

Overcrowded. Understaffed. Underfunded. With austerity cutbacks and a reduced operating budget, conditions have reached critical mass in the 136 prisons that serve England and Wales. Collapsing under the weight of numbers, the prison population is a record 85,925 and, at 149 per 100,000 people, the UK has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe.

On Wednesday, it was 25 years since the April Fools' Day riot at HMP Manchester – the longest and bloodiest disturbance in the history of the British prison system. As the anniversary struck, former convict who had been sent down for possession with intent to supply and was released a week ago told me that things are close to boiling point once more.

"Things are dangerously close to breakdown because of overcrowding and prisoners being locked up for 23 hours out of 24. [They're] sleeping, smoking, eating, wanking, shitting and pissing without any fucking privacy in sight, smell and sound of each other in primitive conditions," he said.

He put this down to, "government cutbacks – too few prison officers to control inmates during association. Staff shortages have also fucked up once a week visiting times – reduced from 60 mins to 45 minutes." He added that another major issue in the prison is, "cold food and stingy portions" but, he said, there is "no problem getting drugs or access to a mobile phone".

Better known by its former name, Strangeways, HMP Manchester was built in 1868, and is one of England's largest high-security, category A prisons. For many decades, this Victorian relic has enjoyed a reputation for endangering the life and limb of both prisoners and prison officers alike.

The 1990 April Fools' Day riot started at 10.50AM in the prison chapel. Armed with nine-volt batteries in socks, the cons swiftly overpowered prison officers, stole their keys and unlocked cells. By 11.06AM, they had made it to the roof of the prison. By 11.15AM, prison officers were ordered to stand down. From the rooftop, bricks and slate tiles were used as missiles and hurled down by rioters. To add insult to injury, they pissed on retreating and wounded officers.

The explosion of violence claimed the life of one inmate, a sex offender, and a prison officer who later suffered a heart attack. In total, 194 people were injured and much of the prison was destroyed during the 25 days of protest. But what led 142 hardcore inmates to take it over? Squalid and overcrowded living conditions. At the time, Strangeways held 1,647 men despite only being designed to accommodate 970. Three men, sometimes four, were housed together in 13' x 8' Victorian cells that were built to hold one.Like all rioting prisoners, they had demands, and the demands were not unreasonable. More visiting rights, longer exercise periods, an end to 23-hour lockdown and "slopping out" unsanitary chamber pots (prisoners had to shit and piss in buckets in their cell). They also had a litany of other grievances: mental and physical brutality, the misuse of psychotropic drugs in controlling prisoners and poor food.

During the course of the riot, hundreds of inmates surrendered, but ringleader Paul Taylor and a dozen other cons planted trapping pits that kept the screws at bay –sections of the prison landing had been destroyed and camouflaged with lino tiles through which prison officers would fall. At 6.20PM on Wednesday the 25th of April, 1990, the protest came to an end. Indifferent to their petitions of complaint, Mary Stewart, vice-chairperson of the prison's board of visitors, dismissed the rioters as "little men".

With the mutiny over, it soon emerged that the prison's governor, Brendan O'Friel, had wanted to retake Strangeways on the second day of the protest but was overruled by the then Home Secretary David Waddington, despite 18 "snatch squads" waiting in the wings to regain control of the facility. Told to stand down and withdraw by the Home Office, prison officers were left feeling humiliated and frustrated. In the aftermath, 40 inmates ended up in court for rioting, many of them receiving long custodial sentences. Paul Taylor, the ringleader from Liverpool, who was serving 3 years for theft, deception and assault, got 10 years for his role in the disturbance. Alan Lord, already serving life for murder, was given another 10 years for his part.

Strangeways had been trashed. Stones, bricks, rubble and glass littered the wings of the facility. Cell doors had been ripped off their hinges and thrown off prison landings. Staiwells were demolished and used as shields and makeshift barricades alongside iron framed beds. In the chapel, where the riot had started 25 days earlier, the altar cross was pulled down and broken into pieces. Pews were smashed up and the chapel's walls were covered in septic graffiti. More than £120 million had to be spent rebuilding the prison. A public inquiry – the Woolf Report – described conditions at Strangeways as "intolerable" and forced major changes to the entire prison system. Lord Woolf's report was seen as a watershed in the history of the British penal system. It set out 12 major recommendations and identified dilapidated, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions as the factors of trouble.

Will another full on riot happen again? History not learned from has a tendency to repeat itself. My ex-con source tells me that it's "not lost on the lags that conditions are as bad as they were 25 years ago. There are too many violent prisoners and not enough prison officers to control them. Some trouble makers have been moved into isolation as a preventative measure before anything can be organised."

According to Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice who led the inquiry into the 1990 riot, the prison system is in crisis.

"There are things that are better now than then but I fear we've allowed ourselves to go backwards and we're back where we were at the time of Strangeways," Woolf said, in a Prison Reform-sponsored lecture last week. "For a time after the riot things were much better and numbers were going down. Unfortunately prisoners are being kept in conditions that we should not tolerate, they're a long way from home and their families can't keep in touch with them – a whole gamut of things need to be done and that's why I would welcome a thorough re-look at the situation and above all trying to take prison out of politics."

And a recent parliamentary report warned that government cuts and reforms to the prison system made a "significant contribution" to the decline in safety over the last two years. After a year-long inquiry, the House of Commons Justice Committee expressed "great concern" over the surge in assaults on staff and inmates, as well as the rise in suicides, self-harm and "concerted indiscipline" in prisons between 2012 and 2014.

The ingredients are there. The dangers have been spelt out. Decisive action needs to be taken before another crisis happens with embarrassing historical timing.

Alexander Reynolds is the author of Convict Land: Undercover in America's Jails

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