Strangeways: The Day The Roof Blew off – 30 years later why are we risking it again?

30 years ago the warning signs were all there, they were clear, gross – and ignored

By Mark Leech FRSA. Editor: The Prison Oracle

Contained within the 623 pages of The Woolf Report, the Inquiry into Britain’s toughest prison riot that happened almost exactly 30 years ago, are vitally important lessons on what happened, why it happened and what must be done to ensure that it never happens again.

As I sit here today, surrounded by a plethora of depressing recent reports and statistics on our prisons – the conclusion is inescapable; we are in real danger of it happening again – and I don’t want to be the one who said: “I told you so”.

On April 1st 1990 Strangeways prison in Manchester erupted in a 25-day, £90 million, orgy of violence, destruction and death – a riot that spread to five other prisons, Glen Parva, Dartmoor, Cardiff, Bristol and (what was then called) Pucklechurch.

I was a prisoner at Strangeways Prison in the years leading up to the riot.

I speak and write from personal experience.

Strangeways was a prison in which I – and the majority of others – were physically abused, assaulted and brutalised by prison staff. Where the Governor for much of the decade prior to the riot, the long since now dead Norman Brown, turned a blind eye to prisoner assaults, tacitly allowing them to continue. It was a prison where staff at lunchtime went to the prison club just outside the prison gate and consumed alcohol, coming back after lunch a danger to themselves and others.

Strangeways was a prison where prisoner complaints were ignored with impunity, where people were packed in squalid, vermin-infested conditions, three to a cell designed for one and held there with their human waste for 23 hours a day.

It was a prison ruled with a brutal rod of iron by a small band of prison officers, where staff were openly racist, where they wore National Front (white supremacist) badges on their lapels – it was in short a ticking time bomb that on Sunday 1st April 1990 finally exploded.

In case you think I have over-egged the conditions I am fortunate that at the time television cameras were already inside the prison, they recorded the conditions and I will link to the award-winning hour-long documentary that was produced and which confirms all I say at the end of this article.

The who, what, where, when and why of the riots at these six prisons are set out in The Woolf Report – a copy of which is available on The Prison Oracle the fastest growing comprehensive web site on prisons in England and Wales that I created and edit – and created ironically because I could not find a copy of The Woolf Report as I explain here.

Essentially the reasons for the destruction of our prisons in 1990 as set out in The Woolf Report fall into four basic areas:

Respect – prisoners must be treated with respect, given reasons for decisions that affect them, where weak management, appalling insanitary conditions, levels of violence must not be tolerated and where complaints written on paper by prisoners for the Governor must be addressed long before they are written on bed sheets draped across riot-torn prison rooftops for the public. Today, the constant publication of Reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons finds this simply isn’t happening; vermin infested prisons, along with weak management, levels of violence, assaults and self-harm that are now at their highest levels across the prison estate since records began – each show how quickly the vital lessons of Woolf have been forgotten, ignored or both.

Fairness & Independence: Perhaps the core recommendation of The Woolf Report was that there ‘must be an Independent Prisons Ombudsman’ who can address prisoner complaints with complete independence, a person who has the confidence of prisoners in their independence – but we do not have this, nor anything like it.

Instead, and I impute no bad faith I am just stating the facts, in this vital role today of Prisons & Probation Ombudsman we have Sue McAllister, a person who spent thirty years employed as a Prison Governor – and one year as Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

In March 2019 Mrs McAllister announced on Twitter that her ‘most important audience’ were ‘the prison officers on the landings’ – not the prisoners locked behind their cell doors for whom the Office she occupies was created.

This was a shocking error of judgement that fatally holed the Office of Ombudsman below the credibility waterline – it is a statement for which she has never apologised, never retracted and thinks it wholly acceptable never to respond to critical comments about her terrible inability to perform her role.

Investigating Deaths in Custody are a fundamental part of what The Prisons Ombudsman is required to do – but the reality is that Mrs McAllister’s recommendations are routinely ignored with impunity – she holds no public press conferences aghast at the dismissal of her recommendations. Like the good public servant she has been for thirty years Mrs McAllister simply continues to repeat time after time, death after death, exactly the same recommendations, about deaths in the same circumstances, in the same prisons and says nothing of value when no-one takes a blind bit of notice.

Meanwhile, people are dying daily in our prisons – not just adults and young offenders, but babies too now.

Mrs McAllister, who I have known for over 20 years and is a very pleasant and sociable person, is simply not the right person for Prisons Ombudsman; and she is herself guilty of terrible errors of judgement when it comes to deaths in custody too.

Two days ago Mrs McAllister thought it perfectly acceptable to quietly slip out a Death in Custody Report into a non-contentious death of a prisoner at HMP Wealstun that had occurred TEN YEARS AGO – without so much as an apology or any explanation for the delay.

Yesterday she repeated this unacceptable behaviour when, again without apology or explanation for the inordinate delay, she slipped out another Death in Custody report SEVEN YEARS after the prisoner had died at HMP Wymott in circumstances that were non-contentious.

When prisoners are treated like this, there is something very wrong with our system of independent complaints investigation, where we have completely forgotten the vital importance of independence in the prisoner complaints process made abundantly clear by Lord Justice Woolf in his Report – and it demonstrates like nothing else ever could that never, ever, again must a former prison governor be appointed to the £100,000 a year role of ‘Independent Prisons Ombudsman’.

‘Independent’ means exactly what it says.

It isn’t just a form of words, it’s a vital frame of mind where perception and practice are everything – you will never convince me that someone who spent 30 years as a prison governor involved in dismissing prisoner complaints is now the right person to hold the Office of Independent Prisons Ombudsman – you will not change the mentality of a person by simply changing the title of the Office that they now hold.

Transparency: The third main finding of The Woolf report was that Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) – then known as Boards of Visitors – must be an open and public watchdog of the public interest. But the reality today is that this woefully inadequate system of prison monitors are deeply mistrusted by prisoners, with very good reason, because of the shocking biased behaviour exhibited by far too many of them.

Every IMB is a separate legal entity that is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – Schedule 1 Part VI of the FOIA states that the FOIA specifically includes: “Any Independent Monitoring Board established under section 6(2) of the Prison Act 1952.”

But I cannot find a single IMB, at any prison in England or Wales, that advertises to prisoners that it is subject to the Act, or explains how prisoners can make requests to them under the Act, nor what information they can ask the Board to disclose under the FOIA.

The National Management Board for IMBs (founded in 2017) refuses to disclose the minutes of its meeting under the FOIA claiming, with a nifty bit of legal foot-work, that technically it is not subject to the FOIA, and it uses that excuse to refuse to disclose what advise it gives to individual Boards as to how they should promote their susceptibility to the FOIA to prisoners – this is not the kind of ‘Transparency’ that Woolf argued was absolutely vital.

Individual Boards produce Annual Reports where in a significant number of cases most of the Report text is just copied and pasted from one year’s Annual Report to the next. These Reports have covered up deaths in custody, airbrushed them out of existence, concealed from their Annual Report the conviction and prison sentences handed to prison officers for their failures in relation to deaths in custody – and where despite the public paying over £2 million a year for these ‘Monitors’ the public are banned from knowing the name of a single one of any of the almost 2,000 people who make up their numbers; we name the Head of MI5 – what’s the big secret about who are Members of Independent Monitoring Boards and who are appointed to their Statutory Office by the Secretary of State?

Accountability: The final central core of the Woolf report was that serious criminal offences committed in prison must be heard by the criminal courts; official statistics published just last week show that assaults against correctional officers are now at record levels. Earlier this year the Government published its Crime in Prison Referral Agreement in which it made clear assaults on correctional staff would be referred to the police; but it transpires to be little more than fiction.

According to statistics slipped out quietly today in the form of a Freedom of Information Response,. these showed that of more than 300 assaults on correctional staff at just one establishment, in the year to September 2019, just 15 were referred to the police.

Today’s prison system, when viewed against the crystal clear backdrop of the four central core recommendations of the Woolf Report – shows we have failed in every single one.

I want to take a moment now to revisit in the present day the prisons that were part of the Strangeways series of riots.

Manchester (formerly known as Strangeways Prison): In the most recent 2018 inspection report the Chief Inspector reported: “Prisoners spent too long locked up in reception and there were gaps in first night care. Induction processes were reasonably good. Levels of violence had increased and were high and one in three prisoners felt unsafe. It was too soon to judge the effectiveness of promising work to reduce violence. The use of force was high and lacked sufficient scrutiny. The regime on the segregation unit was poor. Some aspects of security work were excellent. The drug strategy was inadequate. There had been three self-inflicted deaths in the last six months. Levels of self-harm had increased and the care provided to prisoners in crisis was too variable. Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.

“At the last inspection in 2014, we found that outcomes for prisoners in HMP Manchester were reasonably good against this healthy prison test. We made 22 recommendations in the area of safety. At this inspection we found that 11 of the recommendations had been achieved, one had been partially achieved and 10 had not been achieved.”

Glen Parva – this prison is currently being rebuilt and due to re-open in the hands of the private prison sector in 2021, as a result there are no current reports.

Dartmoor: opened in 1803 and which, in its most recent Inspection Report, the Chief Inspector described a catalogue of the ‘shocking failings’ he had found there;

Cardiff: opened in 1827 and in its latest report the Chief Inspector recorded significant issues affecting safety, with rising levels of violence, weak management, undue use of force, a poor segregation unit, rising levels of illegal drugs and cells that were Dickensian in condition with a lack of basic facilities such as clean clothes and bedding; (UPDATE 5/11/2019 – new Inspection Report issued on HMP Cardiff that reveals the prison has made a great deal of progress and it’s only fair that I should acknowledge this and link to the Report which I happily do)

Bristol: opened in 1883, a frontline local prison with such appalling conditions on its most recent Inspection the Chief Inspector activated the Urgent Notification procedure; and

Pucklechurch: demolished, rebuilt and reopened as Ashfield prison in the hands of the private sector – and the first of only two private prisons ever to have been stripped of its private contract and taken back (temporarily) into public ownership.

The independent evidence of all of this, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the Strangeways riots, is that all the conditions that were present 30 years ago when the prison exploded, are back again.

Today our prisons are once again less safe than at any time since records began.

No one likes to be seen to be talking these things up – and certainly not me.

But equally I cannot stand by, read the reports, see the failures in independent complaint investigation, read the dreadful vermin infested violent conditions prisoners and staff are again required to live and work in, where complaints are mishandled, deaths in custody ignored, and where the vital four lessons of Respect, Independence, Transparency and Accountability no longer truly exist in a prison system where we are today at the greatest risk of allowing Strangeways to become the lesson that we all foolishly failed to heed.

And please, before you respond or comment to this article, I ask just one thing: watch the video that I link to at the bottom of this article, so you can be independently informed and see for yourself why the roof blew off – and recognise the very real dangers that we again face today thirty years on.

Mark Leech FRSA is the Editor of The Prison Oracle, and The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales

Documentary: Strangeways – the day the roof blew off