Bill Hartley recalls the notorious prison riot
Twenty five years ago in April 1990 the worst riot in British penal history took place at Manchester’s Strangeways prison. Much has been written about the event notably the report by Lord Justice Woolf and doubtless more will appear during this anniversary year. The consensus was that the riot occurred because of the appalling conditions that prisoners had to endure. Well, as someone who was there I have an alternative theory to offer.
It was a very different prison system to the one we have today. Back then one cynic described the Prison Service as a working class organisation with middle class aspirations. And it was run with an iron fist by the working class; recruits tended to come in from the declining industries, for example the former trawler men who ran HMP Hull or the ex miners of HMP Leeds.
Conditions in the big northern ‘local’ prisons were squalid. Years of under investment had seen to that. I remember once going into the roof space above ‘I’ wing at HMP Liverpool to discover rubble from wartime bomb damage had been dumped there and forgotten about. Strangeways wasn’t the worst. For sheer awfulness Leeds topped the lot. Prisoners entered its reception area down a flight of steps plunging into a subterranean world designed by the Victorians to subdue new arrivals. Above was a soot blackened jumble of buildings whose silhouette was said to resemble Windsor Castle. There was a landing for psychiatric cases. Cell doors had been adapted and fitted with what officers called cat flaps. This allowed hospital staff to feed potentially violent prisoners without unlocking them. In a mildly humanitarian touch these flaps were left open to allow prisoners some sight of other human beings. For the newcomer it was an unnerving experience to have to walk a straight line along the centre of the landing. Deviate and you risked being grabbed by arms hanging out of the cat flaps.
The thing was that prisoners accepted these conditions as normal. It was assumed that if you went inside then you entered a decayed and overcrowded version of what the Victorians had created. Cells were larger than strictly necessary because their design envisaged single occupants who would need space to do whatever work was given them. In 1990s Strangeways three prisoners could find themselves in this space with no work to do. Rex Bloomstein’s famous 1979 documentary introduced the public to what life was like in the prison. Eleven years later things were starting to change and the clamour for reform had finally reached the ears of prisoners. I actually heard prisoners complain of being locked up for ‘twenty three hours a day’. Admittedly an unemployed prisoner was locked up for an awfully long time but simple arithmetic should have told them that the daily routine made twenty three hours in a cell impossible. Such was the power of propaganda.
My first inkling of how serious the situation was at Strangeways came during my time as duty governor at HMP Liverpool. I was called down to Reception to monitor the arrival of some prisoners. With the disturbance at its height many had surrendered before being moved to other jails. This group though were different. They were sex offenders freed by Strangeways staff who had the presence of mind to release them before withdrawing. I encountered a group of men white faced and shivering in shock and fear, conscious as I learned later that they had narrowly escaped a beating or worse.
Subsequently I was sent to Strangeways as negotiations advisor to assist the night commander of the incident. By then the hold outs were on the roof and the jail was a surreal place to be. Our operations room was the clothing store, close enough to manage the incident but protected from missiles flying down from the roof. At intervals claxons would blare, this being an attempt to keep the rioters awake and on edge. With care it was possible to approach the central rotunda of the prison. Here they had erected scaffolding for a painting job. One can imagine how lethal a scaffolding pole thrown from height could be. This inadvertent provision of ammunition for the rioters was one reason why it was decided not to retake the jail. The fact was though that the initiative had been lost in the first few hours. Lord Woolf chose not to blame the people on duty because presumably he knew a command and control failure running right to the top when he saw one.
A man like Lord Woolf would have been appalled by the conditions he found but working class prisoners were rather more accepting. Indeed a report around that time by the Chief Inspector of Prisons described HMP Liverpool as having ‘the worst levels of deprivation in any English prison but the highest morale among prisoners’. It really depended on how the staff ran the jail and the relaxed approach in Liverpool kept the place quiet.
It’s my belief then that what happened wasn’t a spontaneous protest against conditions but rather a quirk of northern working class culture. Liverpudlians and Mancunians don’t get on. Usually they are at opposite ends of the East Lancashire Road but there used to be many stories about friction in Warrington – Runcorn New Town, where sections of each tribe had been dumped.
Liverpool had its share of sex offenders: Rule 43s as they used to be called. Someone had the idea of locating them on the prison’s ‘H’ wing that would then be a dedicated unit managed for those classed as ‘vulnerable’. They certainly were. Exercising on ‘H’ yard had to be abandoned after the sniper on neighbouring ‘G’ wing struck once too often. He was an anonymous prisoner with a catapult who could fell sex offenders with considerable accuracy. No-one minded much until officers realised they too might be at risk.
The prison didn’t have enough Rule 43s to fill ‘H’ wing and it was unthinkable that ‘ordinary’ prisoners could remain there. An approach was made to Strangeways to take all their Rule 43s. This was accepted with alacrity since Rule 43s were considered a nuisance to manage. In exchange the prisoners from ‘H’ wing were sent to fill the vacant spaces at Strangeways and they were not happy about going there. A factor contributing to the stability of a local prison is the sense that though a man is incarcerated he is still close to home.
The prisoner who began the uprising in the chapel that Sunday morning was Paul Taylor from Birkenhead, a former Liverpool prisoner. Night after night I sat with the commander as the numbers upon on the roof slowly dwindled and noticed that the last hold outs were mainly Liverpool men. You won’t find any of this in Lord Justice Woolf’s report but it leaves me thinking that wrecking Manchester’s prison was a Liverpudlian thing to do.
Bill Hartley, who worked in the prison service, writes from Yorkshire