|HMP Manchester (aka Strangeways)|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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.