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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.
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.
“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.
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.
Strangeways, Manchester, UK. April 1990. Credit: Manchester Evening News
UK PRISONER VOTING RIGHTS
Brendan O’Friel, the governor in charge of Strangeways during 25 days of famous unrest beginning April 1st, 1990 has backed moves to give UK prisoners the vote.
O’Friel says the controversy is being deliberately stirred up for political reasons. He told the Manchester Evening News:
“I think it is a totally sensible thing to give prisoners the right to vote and then encourage them to vote. Whatever those people have done it is a question of trying to make sure that they are going to make a contribution to the community rather than being a drain on it. Anything we can do to encourage them to take responsibility and think positively is a very good thing.”
O’Friel’s view is not the concensus in the UK. In November 2010, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that denying the vote to prisoners was a violation of their human rights.
However, in early February the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject any lifting of the ban, opposing the move by 234 to 22. By doing so they face a class-action lawsuit which could cost the British taxpayer millions in damages for as long as the government denies prisoners their vote.
The ridiculous thing about this is that the figures (approximately 90,000) would barely effect election results. This is expensive folly by Britain’s politicians.
The UK prisoner voting ban has been in place since 1870.
For comparison, The Telegraph reports:
“Many developed countries have some form of prisoner voting including 28 other European nations such as France, Germany and Italy. Russia and Japan exclude all convicted prisoners. Just two states in America allow it while others do not even give the vote back when inmates leave prison. Prisoners can vote in two of seven states in Australia.”
PRISONER VOTING IN AMERICA
In 2010, judges in Washington State found that felon disenfranchisement laws unfairly impacted minorities as they were more likely to be subject to racial inequalities in the application of policing procedure.
From the ever-excellent Prison Law Blog:
“On Sept. 21, the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, an important case that could affect the voting rights of prisoners in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, California, Hawaii, and Arizona. Back in January, a split Ninth Circuit panel ruled that, in Washington State, “minorities are more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, detained, and ultimately prosecuted,” and that, because “some people becom[e] felons not just because they have committed a crime, but because of their race, then that felon status cannot, under section 2 of the [Voting Rights Act], disqualify felons from voting.”
Washington State appealed and the discussion is likely to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s about time both Britain and the U.S. move into the 21st Century. From the Sentencing Law and Policy blog:
“According to a report co-published by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system, disenfranchisement laws are “a vestige of medieval times when offenders were banished from the community and suffered ‘civil death.’ Brought from Europe to the colonies, these laws gained new political salience at the end the nineteenth century when disgruntled whites in a number of Southern states adopted them and other ostensibly race-neutral voting restrictions in an effort to exclude blacks from the vote.”
For more on prisoner and ex-prisoner disenfranchisement, read Michelle Alexander. She condenses the arguments of her very successful book, The New Jim Crow, here.
STRANGEWAYS ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
(M.E.N. story found via Jailhouse Lawyer)
It might be that the anniversary of the most famous riot in the history of the British prison system will become an annual feature on Prison Photography?
Last year, I noted the 19th anniversary of the Strangeways Riot with looks at the work of Ged Murray and Don McPhee. This year for the big 20, I’ll point you in the direction of Ciara Leeming, fellow blogger, Northerner and Thatcher-basher. (Why is it that we children of the late seventies/early eighties can’t get out from under the iron lady’s shadow?)
For 25 days in April 1990, the authorities lost control of Manchester’s iconic Victorian jail and inmates took to the roof to protest against poor conditions and abusive staff. Chronic overcrowding, a lack of sanitation in the cells, frequent moves from one prison to another and poor visitation rights were among their complaints. When it all kicked off there were 1,600 men sharing 970 single cells. A series of copycat protests followed in a number of other UK jails. At Strangeways, the numbers quickly dwindled of course and by the last day just five protestors were left.
The riot left the prison in chaos and cost tens of millions of pounds and several years to repair. But more importantly, the protest and the landmark Woolf inquiry which followed it are credited as being a turning point in penal history. Many of Lord Woolf’s recommendations were too radical for the Tory administration and subsequent New Labour government to stomach and the prison population stands far higher today. But conditions at Strangeways – now HMP Manchester – and other prisons are undeniably better than they were on April Fool’s Day two decades ago.
Ciara’s just written a piece for Big Issue in the North, the UK’s magazine sold by homeless vendors in cities up and down the Isle. Download Ciara’s Big Issue feature here.
The California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCr) filled the visual hole left by the absence of press photography. I discovered via the CDCr Twitter stream that it had a Flickr profile and more than 72 hours after the event published these images. I use them throughout this post.
I was also contacted by a friend who also happens to have worked in CDCr facilities, is a PP guest blogger and now qualified fact-checker!
He was able to offer some clarification, correction and background on the physical environment at Chino and the CDCR desegregation policy that news sources and I referred to as a factor in the heightened racial tensions. Read on.
The CDCR picture used in the original post shows only the minimum [security] facility at California Institution for Men (CIM). From the picture’s POV, the entire Reception Center infrastructure is behind you. That’s where the riot happened. Nothing happened anywhere in the area pictured.
The large building in the foreground is the administration building for the entire prison. The large building directly behind it is the prison hospital – yes, this is one of the rare prisons that actually has its own hospital. To the right of the hospital is the main walkway toward the back end of the minimum facility and in that upper left corner is a Substance Abuse Program yard with its own dorms and programming facilities. The large baseball field is considered the main yard.
Implementing CDCR Integration Policy
The integration/desegregation issue has not been raised or put into effect in any prison except two – Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) in Ione and Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown. These were the so called pilot programs for housing integration.
Like all things in CDCR, the reality is not what you think. These two prisons were chosen because they would seem to cause the least possible problems. MCSP is entirely SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard) with only a few hundred general population inmates in a separate minimum facility, and that’s designed for support of the prison itself. Inmates from that population work in administrative areas as clerks, porters, landscapers, etc. Some are sent out to work in local parks, on roads, etc. And some are bussed each day to the training academy for officers in Galt. Almost all of them are within a year or two of release and aren’t interested in getting into any trouble. Anyway, the three SNY yards house about 3600 inmates (1200 on each yard), and they are all in cells and already fully integrated because they are SNY. (Those not in cells are in badly overcrowded gyms and dayrooms.)
Many on the Mule Creek SNY yards, about 1500, are rated EOP mental health inmates (enhanced outpatient program – the most serious level of mental health programming). Virtually all of those are on psychotropic drugs of one sort or another and are essentially in la la land most of the time. Another several hundred are considered CCCMS (correctional clinical case management system) inmates. Some of those are on drugs, and all are doing some sort of mental health programming (support groups, etc.). There is a mental health staff there of about 150 people. Anyway, inmates in this prison are already quite docile and have been de facto integrated for a long time (since it was made SNY three or four years ago). They have had no discord around the housing integration issue that I’m aware of.
Now, Sierra Conservation Camp (SCC) is a different situation. Half of that prison is a [lower security] 3-level SNY facility, and integration in that half is no issue. [But] the general population side of the prison is a different story.
There is a 1-level yard with about 1200 inmates in dorms. An identical 2-level yard is next to it. The mission of these yards is to train inmates to be firefighters and to staff the small fire camps around the state. It’s hard and dangerous work, but the rewards are substantial. The food in the camps is excellent, and there’s as much of it as you want. The pay is very good (by inmate standards) and some have been able to accumulate a parole nest egg of several thousand dollars. Finally, good time credits mean your in-prison time is as little as 35% of your sentence so you can get out a lot earlier. These inmates are typically not the most violent offenders, although some will have violence in their past. Some are affiliated and active gang members. (On SNY yards there are no active gang members, in theory anyway, because you can’t get to an SNY until you renounce your gang.) The housing integration flies in the face of the gang conventions so it has caused some problems at SCC on those two general population yards.
The CDCR started the integration effort last summer, and it quickly backed off when inmates put up resistance. Summer is not a good time in prison; heat makes violence flare more easily. Also, it’s fire season and the camps must be staffed. So they waited until the fall and tried again. Many dorms had mini-riots as gangs instructed incoming inmates not to comply. There were a couple of yard-level disturbances. The inmates tried refusing to come out of their dorms for a couple of days. They believed the officers would bring food to them as they would in a lockdown situation. When they did not, the stomachs settled it temporarily. Eventually, the administration settled on dealing with the situation by depriving any inmate who refused a bunk assignment of privileges. He would be given a disciplinary writeup and not be allowed phone calls, programming, visits, etc. It is currently this kind of a stalemate.
Existing Racial Enmity
One thing that has not been mentioned is the ongoing Black/Hispanic rivalry in the southern half of the state. You may recall in early 2006 there were major riots in the Los Angeles County jails between Blacks and Hispanics. Over 2000 inmates participated, one died and at least 100 were injured. Many men involved in that could be the same people who were at Chino this weekend. Since that part of the Chino prison is a reception center, many inmates were probably local parolees who’d violated. These, and others, would have been through the LA county jail system, probably over the last few years. So this could all be no more than a continuation of the ongoing violence with many of the same people. Who knows!?
I’ve been in those Chino dorms many times and always felt uneasy. Only two officers are assigned, and at any given time one is on the phone or at the door doing an unlock or in the restroom or off on some administrative quest. There is no “gun coverage” as they call it when an armed officer is placed in an elevated position to provide less-than-lethal and lethal force to quell disturbances. As the administrative representative made plain in the interviews, the inmates are really in control. Two officers armed with pepper spray, batons and alarms can be overpowered in seconds. One officer had to be airlifted to medical care from that facility a year or so ago. His partner was doing something and he got hit from behind and they just beat him unconscious. He is extremely lucky he didn’t die; I’m sure the inmates left him for dead. Those dorms are classic World War II era barracks style housing. They would not meet the current standards of prison housing. Actually, they probably would not get any kind of occupancy permit in any municipality in the state.
Finally, a note of purely personal opinion. I believe the CDCR went about integration all wrong. In effect, they asked inmates to integrate. For a year or so prior to the start date, they had meetings with inmates to tell them what it was about and why it was being done. Worst of all, they created a video to sell them on the idea and played it incessantly on the prison TV system. It reminded me of parents who had decided to ask their children to go to school rather than simply telling them to go to school. Inmates are like children, and psychologically, they respond like children. If the administration had simply told them the courts were ordering integration and on a certain date it was happening, I think they would have had less trouble.
Here’s the official CDCr press release update (11th August)
Editor’s note: ‘Sensitive Needs Yards’ (SNY) can be understood, essentially, as protective custody areas. They were conceived seven years ago to accommodate the following populations;
1. Guys who had dropped out of gangs. And you have to go through a six-month to one-year deprogramming that includes telling everything you know about the gang and its activities.
2. High notoriety inmates – ex-cops, celebrities, etc. For example, Tex Watson, the Manson family murderer is at MCSP. Phil Spector is on an SNY at Corcoran.
3. Sex offenders.
4. Mental health inmates.
5. Old and infirm people who are still ambulatory.
Michael Shaw over at the excellent BAGnewsNotes pointed out a rather bizarre anomaly in our image-saturated world. There exist barely any photographs of the prison riot at the California Institute for Men at Chino that occurred this weekend.
Given that Shaw has his hand firmly on the newswire pulse of America I’ll take him at his word … photojournalist coverage of this significant riot was is scant.
I even think that the image Shaw presents is a concession; a still from film footage.
Today, the Los Angeles Times published this image showing the aftermath of the riot.
The BBC was quick to cover the riot. Most news sources framed the riot as a result of racial tension, but in truth those tensions only came to surface due to inexcusable and acknowledged overcrowding. In 2007, Doyle Wayne Scott, a former Texas corrections chief consulting on California prison security reported that overcrowding at the California Institute for Men at Chino created “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.”
Overcrowding is a problem that ignites other problems, and represents a serious issue that has no easy answers. Some prison reform activists would be wiling to see new (temporary) facilities built to ease the tensions, but this is an unlikely scenario as trust between they and the legislature, Governor’s office, CDCr and CCPOA is low. Recent history has taught us that when new prisons are built, they are filled and calls for more prisons follow. The solution is to change the laws that over the past two decades have warehoused increasing numbers of non-violent offenders.
One of the other depressing aspects to this story is that the racial tensions are apparently the result, partly, of enforced desegregation at Chino. Prison populations operate on strict codes and it would seem that top-down-enforcement of an anti-racist policy doesn’t change the attitudes of the men only agitates their existing prejudices, distrust and expected antagonisms toward one another.
My humble suggestion to work against these deep-seated hatreds would be to operate smaller facilities with immediate access to education programs. Sociological models taught as part of a basic curricula are revelatory for many prisoners. Many inmates, given the tools and the logic to explain their oppositions will identify other ways of seeing race.
It is true that some prisoners don’t want to rehabilitate, but they are in the minority. Often it is simply the case that race for this population has never been discussed in complex or nuanced terms.
Here’s some video of the aftermath.
To append my last post about iconic photographs of rooftop inmates during the Strangeways riot of 1990 is a nod to the work of Ged Murray. Previous lamentations at the lack of Strangeways photography were premature on my part … I just had to keep digging.
These are my choice shots from a series of 20 Strangeways images on Ged Murray’s website. The image below of the two inmates in discussion is iconic (according to my brother). The silhouetted tower is instantly recognisable.
This last image of an inmate with signs took a large portion of my time. I am still thinking it over. Unerringly, I like the image. The shot bypasses the potency of icon and dilutes our consumption of events; returning our appreciation to more modest levels, focusing on the individual lives involved during a brief but pivotal moment in the history of British governmental prison policy.
Thanks to Ged Murray for his permission to publish the images.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.