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A RIOT TO REMEMBER

Prison riot, prison rebellion, prison uprising — whatever they’re called, they hit the news, grip public nation and stay long in the memory. In the U.S., Attica is synonymous with prison rebellion. In Britain, it is Strangeways.

On 1st April, 1990, prisoners took charge of Strangeways’ chapel. Within hours they were in control of an entire wing and entrances. They made their way to the roof and began 25 days of public appearances. Britain had never seen anything like it. The nation could not turn away. At first, most were disgusted both by the prisoners’ wanton destruction and their brazenness out in the unusually warm spring sun. These first impressions, though, were founded on unfamiliarity with the system. As a hardcore of protestors remained on the roof into a second, a third and a fourth week, the nation started to think that perhaps there was something fighting for. There was. Better prison conditions.

The Strangeways Riot was the catalyst for the consequent government’s Wolff Report which scrutinised prison conditions across the nation. It was a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s prisons, setting out 12 major recommendations and identifying knackered, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions as the underlying causes of trouble at Strangeways and tensions elsewhere.

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A RIOT FOR THE CAMERAS

It only seems like yesterday I was commenting on the 20th anniversary. Nevertheless, on this historical anniversary I’d like to share some of the most iconic images. They’re all sourced from this Manchester Evening News gallery. The gallery itself is tired and poorly put together (duplicates, cursory or no captions, few image credits, mix of colour and B&W) but there are some gems in there.

Many of these photographs were made from a disused warehouse across the street from Strangeways in which press photographers posted up. Ged Murray probably has the best available archive. I  know Don McPhee was there too (his work is probably in the Guardian archive). Meanwhile, there’s work by Stephanie De Leng out there somewhere, and Chris Steele Perkins photographed Strangeways during the 80s.

What impresses me most about the protest is that the prisoners knew they had a message to deliver and they dominated the narrative as best they could from a besieged position. Most notably, were the regulars appearances of Alan Lord (top), a convicted murderer, who quoted from official prison logs to establish their contempt for the system. He used the words of the authority against the authority. Writ large on chalkboards. All for the world’s media.

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“Media Contact, Now”

The prisoners made requests for media contacts as mediators and guarantors. While the authorities slowly cut off food, water and limited them to the roof, and while protestors were picked off in ambushes, the prisoners still managed to dictate a public show on their terms.

Alan Lord got out in 2012. He now runs a gym in Greater Manchester. He was one of the key figures during the protest and negotiated with the authorities during the siege. When he was ambushed by a snatch squad, it was the beginning of the end for the protest. There’s a feature about Lord in the Manchester Evening News (MEN).

“It’s a tragedy that prisoners had to take that stance. But the warning signs had been there for decades. There were clear warnings within the prison system,” Lord told MEN. “It was an explosion waiting to happen. It could have happened in any prison but unfortunately it was Strangeways.”

He’s now writing a book Life in Strangeways: From Riots to Redemption about his 32 years inside.

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AND TODAY?

Unfortunately, it seems the small gains made in the wake of the Wolff Report have evaporated. Lord Wolff said recently that conditions in Britain’s prisons are the same as 25 years ago.

“For a time after the riot, things were much better and numbers were going down. Unfortunately, prisoners are again 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 that need to be done and that’s why I would welcome a thorough re-look at the situation and above all trying to take prisons out of politics.”

In November 2014, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 85,925 – close to the record – and it had one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, at 149 per 100,000 people.

For the best account of prisons during the past disastrous 25 years, read Sir David Ramsbotham’s Prisongate. Ramsbotham was the independently-appointed Chief Inspectorate of UK prisons (1995-2000). His findings were shocking and surprised many who were deep in the British culture of corrections — even in the wake of Strangeways.

A cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee recently voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and prisners, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.

Wolff is calling for a new investigation into the state of the country’s prisons.

“People’s re-offending behaviour has not been tackled,” says Wolff. “You have to look at the problem holistically and that’s what I don’t think we’re doing and not making the matter a political football. The main political parties want to show the public they’re tough on crime because they believe that’s what the public wants.”

“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,” said Wolff.

Meanwhile, “enjoy” these photographs.

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