Sunday, 18 April 2010

20 years ago: the Strangeways prison riot

from this weeks issue of the Socialist

On 1 April it was 20 years since the start of the Strangeways prison 'riot'. The riot was a protest by prisoners against their appalling conditions. They initially barricaded themselves in the prison chapel, then took to the roof to raise the profile of their demands.

Iain Dalton

At the time conditions in prisons were bad. Strangeways had a certified capacity of 970, yet at the time of the riot the prison was holding 1,647 prisoners.

Prisoners on remand were in their cells 18 hours a day. Category A prisoners were in their cells 22 hours a day, only being allowed out to slop out - empty their chamber pots - for an hour's exercise and for a weekly shower. There was no change of kit for most prisoners after showers, and young prisoners had no work and few activities to keep them occupied.

The prisoners put these demands through the Manchester Evening News:

* Improved visiting facilities, including the right to physical contact with visitors and a children's play area.
* Category A prisoners to be allowed to wear their own clothes and be able to receive food parcels.
* Longer exercise periods.
* An end to the 23-hour-a-day lock-up.

Over a period of a few weeks, prisoners surrendered or were recaptured. Eventually the last five were taken off the roof in a cherry-picker.

The riot led to the setting up of a public inquiry under Lord Woolf which concluded that prison conditions were 'intolerable' and urged reform.

But a scurrilous article in the Society Guardian on 3 March this year attempted to put the responsibility for the riot onto violence-seeking prisoners and lazy prison officers who couldn't see the vision of the newly installed reforming prison governor Brendan O'Friel.

Yet the Woolf report noted that his reforms hadn't done much to alleviate the standards of prison life and called the conditions 'still wholly intolerable'.

Prisons had been understaffed for years, resulting in prisoners being locked up for longer and longer periods.

As part of the government's Fresh Start scheme for prison staffing, prisons had been reducing the number of hours overtime worked by prison officers as well as making other 'efficiency savings' whilst not making up for this by increasing staffing levels.

This also led to the increasing use of sedatives to keep control of the prison population.

After the Woolf report there was a slowdown in the growth of the prison population. Many prisons were improved so that they contained integrated sanitation and Strangeways itself was rebuilt at a cost of £55 million after the damage it had suffered during the riot. It was re-opened as Manchester prison.

But since then the prison population has shot up again. It is now over the 80,000 mark, which necessitated the use of police and court cells to hold prisoners during 2007. Although slopping out is supposed to have been phased out, it is still present in a few prisons such as Peterhead.

Some right-wing media portray prison conditions as luxury accommodation, yet as the Strangeways riot showed, it is far from the 'holiday camp' they wish to portray.