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.”

High Down ‘Mutineers’ in the dock

Highdown Prison
Highdown Prison

Eleven men standing trial for mutiny at High Down prison felt “banged-up like kippers” as a result of austerity measures introduced by the Government last year.

The young men, who were all inmates at the Banstead prison last October, sat together in the dock at Blackfriars Crown Court today.

They are charged with taking part in a prison mutiny and causing criminal damage on October 21 and 22 last year.

They stand accused of “engaging in conduct intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority at High Down prison”.
All 11 pleaded not guilty to all of the alleged offences.

In his opening statement to the jury, Mark Seymour, prosecuting, said a mutiny began at 5.30pm on October 21 last year when a group of prisoners, including the defendants, refused to return to their cells when instructed to do so by a prison officer.

Mr Seymour said: “Officer Williams said ‘they were saying f***off, we want our association, we are not going behind our doors’.”

The court heard how the defendants then moved to the landing above and filed into a cell on that floor, B317, before barricading the door with a bunk bed and other furniture.

Mr Seymour said: “There was a demand note under the door.

“It read: ‘The reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively’ and that they were ‘not getting any association and banged up like kippers’.”

The jury of five women and seven men heard how the prisoners stayed in the cell for the next seven-and-a-half hours.

Mr Seymour said: “It was not a peaceful protest in any shape or form.

“The cell was totally trashed. The furniture in the cell was totally destroyed through to the sink which had been smashed off the wall leaving shards of porcelain everywhere.”

The court was told that the defendants made claims of having a gun, made reference to a hostage being taken and that there were threats of a ‘dirty protest’.

The prisoners were also allegedly setting fire to items inside the cell and washing-up liquid was seeping from underneath the cell door.

The jury heard how two negotiators were apparently spat on during the incident and that one of the defendants said: “he was pissed-off as they were being treated like animals”.

The barrister added: “He wasn’t happy with the lack of showers. He said he had tried to complain but wasn’t being listened to and the protest was to get the governor’s attention.”

Mr Seymour said that when 40 specialist officers arrived at the cell in riot gear, including a team known as the Tornadoes, at 12.45am, they opened the door and “the prisoners didn’t come quietly”.

He told the court: “When officers removed the door to the cell there was an attack on the officers with homemade weapons.

“They [the defendants] succeeded in secluding and overthrowing lawful authority in the prison at the time.”

The barrister said the prisoners were given the opportunity to surrender on several occasions, but they refused.

He said the prisoners did not want to speak to the custodial manager, who made contact through the cell’s observation hatch, and that she was told: ‘We don’t want to speak to the monkey, we want to speak to the organ grinder’.

Mr Seymour said Peter Gafney and Martin Prince, who were considered the group’s ringleaders, also made three demands – to see the governor, “to get some burn [cigarettes]” and to go to the gym.

The barrister said that an authorised phone call made half-an-hour before the incident begun, by Mr Rowe, indicated that the alleged mutiny was pre-planned.

Mr Seymour said: “During the course of the conversation, Mr Rowe made reference to ‘a little madness was due to happen soon’ and that the prison system was violating his rights.”

He said other prisoners started “acting up” inside High Down, mirroring what was going on inside cell B317.

opened in 1992, High Down is a category B local prison for men which mainly houses defendants awaiting trial or directly after conviction, who do not require maximum security but are still deemed to be a danger to the public.

Providing the jury with background to the alleged mutiny, Mr Seymour said: “During 2013 a scheme known as New Ways of Working was introduced in the prison driven by prison service management in line with Government austerity measures and was a requirement for all prisons in the UK.

“It came into effect on 1 September 2013, some six weeks before the incident.

“The purpose was to make High Down prison more efficient from a government perspective, a significant reduction in the number of staff and a more restrictive regime for prisoners.

“There were fewer staff to carry out day-to-day activities.

“Staff shortages and a revised timetable led to changes in the core daily timetable and meant prisoners were locked up for longer periods during the day.

“There had been complaints about this from prisoners. It’s clear there was a degree of adaptation taking place in the prison.”

The defendants are Martin Prince, Cory Stewart, Peter Gafney, Oshane Gayle, Callum Hollingsworth, Sam Davies, Anuar Niyongaba, Jordan Rowe, Charlie Dempster, Nathaniel Johnson and Nicholas Carlton.

Two of them were absent at today’s proceedings. Of the remaining defendants, some are in still custody, while two are on bail.

The trial, being heard before Judge Blacksell QC and expected to last three to four weeks, continues.

Prison staff predicted trouble


Staff at a private prison where disorder broke out predicted there would be trouble when the workforce was dramatically cut, a union official has said.

Around 50 inmates at HMP Northumberland were involved in the serious disorder on Friday night.

It required the assistance of specially-trained colleagues from other prisons around the North East to stop the trouble around seven hours later.

Terry Fullerton, who represents the region on the Prison Officers’ Association national executive committee, said members had raised concerns about staffing levels as far back as December.

He said since then around 130 staff had left, leaving fewer than 200 uniformed staff to guard 1,350 inmates.

“Staff were concerned that the reduction would lead to something like what came to happen on Friday night,” he said.

Inmates refused to return to their cells and warned staff to leave the area, which they did, allowing them to take over until a specialist squad of officers was assembled.

On-site services provider Sodexo said an investigation was being held into what happened.

Mr Fullerton believed inmates will have come to realise staffing levels were low enough for them to take over.

He said: “It doesn’t take inmates long to realise that staffing levels have reduced, and that there are less of the ‘white shirts’ that are needed to keep control.”

The union official said inmates at HMP Northumberland had been risk-assessed and deemed to be suitable for a category C prison, yet some of them would be convicted murderers, paedophiles and drug dealers.

Inmates ‘take over wing’ at Northumberland prison


More than 50 inmates reportedly took over part of a prison wing.

The incident broke out at HMP Northumberland in Morpeth at around 7.30pm yesterday.

Officials at the prison confirmed a “disturbance” had taken place, but dismissed as “speculation” the suggestion of a stand-off between inmates and guards, and there were no reports of any injuries.

But Prison Officers Association general secretary Steve Gillan told the BBC that there was a stand-off.

He said last night: “We do not know what has sparked this major incident, but I do know that 50 plus inmates have taken over a wing,” he said.

“We have teams from other establishments trained to deal with riots on their way. There is concerted indiscipline and our officers will try to contain it.”

The trouble broke out after prisoners refused to go back to their cells, the BBC said, while police were put on standby ready to assist.

A spokesman for Sodexo, which operates the prison, said the situation has now been resolved.

He said: “We can confirm there was a disturbance at HMP Northumberland.

“It was confined to part of one wing of the prison and has now been resolved. We will carry out an investigation into this incident.”

HMP Northumberland houses around 1,350 inmates and is a category C prison, for prisoners who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to make a determined attempt to escape.

Sodexo Justice Services took over the management of the prison in December last year.

Prison Disturbances: tip of an iceberg?


Government cuts to prisons sparked a disturbance involving around 40 inmates at a jail in Kent, the Prison Officers’ Association have warned – while another prisons expert said it was the tip of an iceberg.

Police and fire crews had to be deployed to Maidstone Prison when the trouble erupted in one of the wings.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed that it was resolved last night. It is believed to have lasted more than three hours.

A prison services spokeswoman said the incident had been resolved without any injuries to staff or prisoners.

There was no evidence of damage, she added.

“An investigation is under way and the perpetrators will be dealt with appropriately by the prison,” she said.

A second demonstration by prisoners at Rye Hill Prison, near Rugby in Warwickshire, was unrelated to the Maidstone incident, the prison services spokeswoman said.

“There was a passive demonstration at HMP Rye Hill where around 60 offenders refused to return to their cells,” she said.

“This was peacefully resolved within a few hours.”

Prison Officers Association vice chairman Ralph Valerio said the Maidstone Prison riot was in response to new regime changes and staff cuts that resulted in prisoners having to spend more times in their cells.

“Try to put yourself in the shoes of the offender – you find yourself spending more time locked up with less time to be able to call your family and less time to be able to have social interaction with the staff and with other offenders on that wing then it can have a detrimental effect,” he told Sky News.

“As a trade union we have been warning against this for some time.

“The prison system is going through a tremendous amount of change at a tremendous rate of pace and it’s a warning that the rate of change is unprecedented.”

Maidstone, with an inmate population of about 600, is a category C training prison that predominantly houses sex offenders from the Kent and Sussex areas.

The prison also takes in a number of foreign prisoners with more than 18 months to serve.

Rye Hills a category B training prison holding 664 men who have been sentenced to more than four years, and have at least 18 months left to serve.

Criminologist Professor David Wilson said prison guards probably enacted Operation Tornado to bring the latest riot under control.

It is a proven method using specialist officers that has been used many times before, he said.

“These are very well-tested systems and so it will be about trying to bring order back to HMP Maidstone,” he told Sky News.

“In these situations it’s usually a question of being some particular incident that ignites the prisoners who want to take this kind of action and sometimes that action gets out of control.”

Mr Valerio said the staff were well trained to deal with the situation.

“We have a contingency plan, the prison service is very, very good at dealing with these sorts of situations and the staff involved in that

The disturbances come just days after a clampdown on prison perks began to be rolled out.

Under changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, prisoners in England and Wales will have to earn privileges including the right to wear their own clothes.

Certificate 18-rated movies and subscription channels have also been banned from private prisons.

Mr Valerio said the government can expect to see more disruption across all prisons as a result of the scheme and budget cuts which have impacted staffing levels.

“Staff had been warning that unrest was growing among the prisoners at that prison,” he told the BBC.

“We can expect to see that no just at Maidstone but across the prison service in England and Wales.

“Prisons will potentially become more dangerous places as this scheme is rolled out.”

He said contact with staff is crucial for prisoners

A Prison Service spokeswoman added: “All our prisons run a safe and secure regime and are staffed appropriately.

“We are currently introducing reforms to the prison system that will provide better value for taxpayers while protecting the public and improving the chances of prisoners being rehabilitated.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners said reforms being introduced would spark unrest in jails across the country.

Mr Leech said: “The reforms which Grayling is introducing have nothing at all to do with better value for tax payers or increased rehabilitation for prisoners, they are about one thing and one thing only – appearing tough in order to be re-elected.

“Grayling is completely uneducated about prisons, he is risking the safety of prison officers and prisoners in a dangerous game of politics with our prisons and I have a dreadful fear that what we have seen at Rye Hill and Maidstone are just the tip of an iceberg of prisoner discontent across the prison system.”