The Strangeways riots in 1990 led to breakthroughs in the prison system. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

The Strangeways riots in 1990 led to breakthroughs in the prison system. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

On April 1st 1990, began Britain’s largest prison riot in history. Strangeways may not mean a lot outside of the UK, but within, Strangeways, Manchester is synonymous with the romanticised image of the Northern criminal. The photographs of prisoners on the roof are iconic. Britons watched with shock.

Photo: Ged Murray

Photo: Ged Murray for the Observer

Prison conditions had rarely been in public debate. Our level of shock was only equivalent to our level of apathy, prior. The general public were in awe of the unprecedented institutional collapse.

Prisoners occupied the roof for 25 days in front of round-the-clock media coverage. The protest ended when the final five prisoners surrendered themselves peacefully on 25th April.

The estimated damage was pegged between £50 and 100 million. The true cost for the HM Prison Service was lord chief justice, Lord Woolf’s subsequent damning report, which cited inmate frustration and poor prison conditions as a main reasons for the riot.

Credit: Unknown

Photo: Ged Murray for the Observer

According to the Guardian – which includes a transcript of the prevailing exchange between proctor and prisoners – the stirrings of unrest began in the chapel following the 10am service. Prison officers evacuated the chapel and then (arguably) too hastily other areas of the prison. Inmates using keys taken from chapel guards released other inmates. Soon the overcrowded and understaffed facility was no longer in the control of government authority.

Strangeways roof protest photographs are iconic because their subject was so unexpected. Britain had harboured class and political confrontation much in the past. But in the miners strikes and clashes with police, football hooliganism, the general strike violence could be in some way predicted. The circumstances for those prior tensions had been played out through media narrative. UK Prisons were neglected; they were in desperate conditions and we – the public – were oblivious.

Don McPhee

Photographs of the Strangeways riot are hard to come by but I have gleaned a few from the web. In doing so I came across the work of the late Don McPhee.

I strongly urge you to watch this slideshow of his work.

McPhee had a 2005 exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery and is a fondly remembered northern talent. He was a crucial part of the alternative editorial voice of the Guardian at that time. That distinctly Northern paper is now internationally distributed & respected.

Miners sunbathing at Orgreave coking plant. Photograph: Don McPhee

Miners sunbathing at Orgreave coking plant. Photograph: Don McPhee

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Here is the inevitable percolating legacy of Strangeways in public dialogue.

Here, Eric Allison makes a succinct argument for British prison reform.

And here is the UK Parliament debate in 2001, ten years after the January, 1991 publication of Woolf’s report reviewing the response to the report recommendations.

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