Our powder-keg prisons: Strangeways – the lesson we failed to heed


Conditions in prisons are as bad now as they were at the time of one of Britain’s worst jail riots, a former lord chief justice has warned – and with one former prison rioter saying our ‘powder-keg prisons’ now risks Strangeways becoming the lesson we have “foolishly failed to heed”

The system is in crisis again 25 years on from the Strangeways disturbance in Manchester, according to Lord Woolf, who led the inquiry into the trouble.

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

Lord Woolf – previously England’s most senior judge, said: “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.

“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.”

Two people died, hundreds more were injured and much of the prison was destroyed during the Strangeways disturbance, which lasted for 25 days in April 1990.

Lord Woolf‘s report into the disturbance was seen as a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s prisons.

It set out 12 major recommendations and identified dilapidated, overcrowded and insanitary conditions as the main underlying causes of trouble.

Lord Woolf made his latest intervention on BBC Inside Out North West, which will be broadcast tonight.

He said more needs to be done to stop prisoners from turning to crime again once they are released.

“People’s re-offending behaviour has not been tackled,” he said.

“There is all sorts of talk of doing so but in practice it doesn’t happen. Apart from a very small minority, everyone who is in prison is going to come out one day and we should make sure that when they come out they can be properly turned away from crime and can be properly habilitated.

“What is needed is someone who’s younger and more energetic to do another review of the prisons and take the prison situation out of politics.

“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.

“I believe that the public want to feel safer and I don’t think they would want to take steps to be tough on crime if it made them even more vulnerable to crime and that is the difficulty and that’s where unfortunately I’m afraid I didn’t win the argument.”

Last week a parliamentary report warned that Government cuts and reforms to the prisons system in England and Wales have made a “significant contribution” to a deterioration in safety over the last two years.

Following a year-long inquiry, the cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and inmates, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.

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

Prisons Minister Andrew Selous said: “This Government has considerably increased the adult male prison capacity from the level inherited at the end of the last parliament.

“All prisons have safe population levels and published statistics show that crowding is at its lowest levels since 2007/08.

“Staffing levels were agreed with both prison governors and the unions at the outset, and prison officers have done an excellent job during a period when the prison population has unpredictably risen.

“Furthermore, we are absolutely clear that all offenders are expected to engage in purposeful activity to help them find a job on release and turn their backs on crime for good.

“The total number of hours worked in prisons has increased from 10.6 million to 14.2 million in the past four years.”

Mark Leech, editor of the acclaimed Prisons Handbook, and Converse the national prisons newspaper, and himself a former prison rioter, welcomed the comments of Lord Woolf.

Mr Leech said: “Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the Strangeways riot, when dozens of angry young men took to the roofs of prisons around this country and raised anguished voices in guttural cries of despair at the conditions in which they were forced to live.

“No-one likes to be seen to be talking up unrest inside our jails, and certainly not me, but the vast numbers of respected voices of concern raised about powder-keg conditions inside our prisons can no longer be ignored; we cannot afford to allow Strangeways to become the lesson we have tragically failed to heed.”