Sunday, 27 July 2014

Weasel Words (1): Prison 'Disturbances'

The good news is that since September 2012 – when Chris Grayling became Secretary of State for (In)Justice – there haven’t been any prison riots in the UK. That’s not because whole wings of prisoners haven’t refused to obey screws’ orders and gone on rampages, but because these days there is a new code of weasel words in use. Now we have prison ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents’. 

Ready for a rumble
The end result is pretty much the same: cells and communal areas trashed, the heavy mob (Tornado Squad) brought in and cons shipped out to other nicks to await prosecution and lengthy extensions to their stay at Her Majesty’s establishments. However, the key issue is never to mention the word ‘riot’. It’s a bit like Basil Fawlty and the Germans… “Don’t mention the riot. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!” (And in the background there is the sound of breaking glass and smoke billowing out from the roof of the prison in question).

In fact, there have been some quite serious prison ‘disturbances’ on Mr Grayling’s watch. HMP Oakwood (aka ‘Jokewood’), the G4S flagship for private sector prisons near Wolverhampton which opened in 2012 has seen its fair share of problems. However, ‘disturbances’ in January 2014 were played down by the Ministry of Justice, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and, of course, G4S - or should that be G4$? 

In an official statement, a G4S spokeperson stated: “The trouble we experienced was concerted indiscipline by a small group of prisoners confined to one wing; it was not an issue affecting the wider prison.” In contrast, anonymous prison staff refused to toe the official line and described the incident as “a full-scale riot”. I wonder who we should believe.

Oakwood, the UK’s largest private prison, is a C-cat and – in theory – costs £13,200 per con annually, compared with an average of £22,000 for public sector C-cats. Presumably this figure doesn’t include the cost of refurbishing trashed wings or the cost to the criminal justice system of prosecuting the rioters (sorry, ‘disturbers’) or the additional costs of holding them for the rest of their longer sentences in higher security establishments.
Trouble this way

Of course, there have been ‘disturbances’ at other nicks recently. This weekend saw HMP Ranby in Nottingham on the national news because up to 60 inmates were refusing to return to their cells in the afternoon. It seems to have been limited to one wing and media reports suggest that something was set on fire, hence the scenes on the television news of fire fighters arriving at the main gate.

Word on the street (or from other cons and their families) is that the reason things kicked off at Ranby was the cancellation of weekend association and activities owing to staff shortages. This I can believe. 

Ranby received a good kicking from HM Inspectorate of Prisons as recently as this Thursday. Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector, described it as a prison “in crisis”. Four inmates killed themselves there over the past year, but there are no published figures for other acts of self-harm.

Among prisoners, Ranby doesn’t have a great reputation, but it’s definitely not the worst. I’ve not been there myself, but I’ve done time with a lot of lads who have, including one of my recent pad-mates (cell-mates). According to past ‘clients’, the Enhanced wings aren’t too bad, but overall the place is pretty badly run and staff shortages have contributed to rising resentment and tension on the wings. 

Last minute cancellation of visits (especially when families and loved ones have travelled long distances) is almost always guaranteed to result in cons kicking off on the wings. Whether this was the case at Ranby this weekend, I don’t know, but if so then it was an entirely predictable result.

What is more disturbing is the way in which NOMS and its apparatchiks manage to suppress information about what really happens inside prisons. Often, it’s only when prisoners are brought before the courts (as happened after the serious riot at HMP Moorland back in November 2010) that the whole story comes out – often years later. In the case of the Moorland lads, they weren’t sentenced for riot or violent disorder until November 2012 when they received additional prison sentences of up to nine years.

Many commentators – including me – have been predicting trouble inside prisons over the long, hot summer. Current staff shortages mean that more and more inmates will spend long periods of time banged up in shared cells originally designed for single use. Many prisons now don’t have cell windows that open (only small side vents operated with a knob) and the temperatures can soar way above anything that would be legal if health and safety legislation applied to prison accommodation.

These conditions can be managed if cons are allowed access to the gym (burn off all that excess energy and testosterone), exercise on the yards in the fresh air and activities. However, if these are suddenly cancelled without notice due to the current shortage of wing screws, then it can be a recipe for trouble – whether it’s described as a ‘disturbance’ or a ‘riot’.

On the roof at Strangeways
Personally, I really doubt that we’ll see full-scale riots of the sort we saw at in April 1990 when first Strangeways went up in smoke (25 days of rioting and the effective destruction of the nick), followed by varying degrees of trouble at other jails (Bristol, Hull, Cardiff, Dartmoor and many other establishments). However, I do think that the true scale of the crisis facing the UK prison system is being withheld from the British people. 

I can’t rule out the possibility that a major riot – possibly involving loss of life – will break out as prisoners’ grievances about deteriorating conditions go unaddressed by Team Grayling in their determination to be seen to be tough on prisoners while ignoring the dire warnings being given by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. The Inspectorate is there for a reason and when it warns of serious trouble ahead – as it did at Ranby – then the MOJ’s refusal to take these warnings seriously suggests that there is another agenda, and I (and many others) suspect that the real ideological aim is further privatisation of the prison system.


  1. I lived in Manchester during the 2012 riots, I remember watching the carnage in London & Birmingham on tv and thinking - uh oh here comes trouble! The media coverage was extensive and Im not suprised there were copycat riots within other cities. That is exactly what will happen if the media are allowed to report about prison riots, cons have access to tvs now - boom!

  2. Riots of 2011, my mistake.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yet back in 1990, when prisoners didn't have in-cell TVs, the Strangeways riot still triggered a domino-effect across the English prison estate. It would be naive to assume that in the 21st century prisoners can be 'insulated' against news of riots and disturbances, particularly in view of the number of illicit mobile phones with which pretty much every prison wing is well supplied.

      What is perhaps more disturbing is that HMPS is publicly-funded, yet the general public is being denied information by NOMS and the MOJ about the ongoing crisis inside prisons - for purely political reasons. However, the POA is very vocal on these issues, so you can be sure that there will be leaked inside information reaching the national and local media whenever a wing 'kicks off' in any nick.