Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whether to Riot

There is, amongst prisoners, a small 'political community' which comprises those of us who take a broader view of our situation and campaign for change. Before the prison service garnered itself with a fa├žade of reasonableness, we would be labelled as subversive, organisers, and anti-authority, all labels I could live with. As with any political community, debates rise and fall, with some personalities being as complicated as the issues. At times there can be as much back-biting as genuine exploration of political issues, but this only highlights the truth that politics is the same wherever you are.

My position is broadly known, equally misunderstood and I am continually challenged. For those who are new to the ins and outs of prison politics I am, amongst other things, head of the Association of Prisoners. The creation of the AoP flowed directly from the Human Rights Act, and exists as the only open prisoner challenge to the status quo.

I take a particular view of change within prisons and how it should be best affected. This does not sit well with some other prisoners and I have my critics in these matters.

It is my conviction that violent rebellion is not an effective means to force change. I don't claim that this is an ahistorical position; particular conditions apply at present which inform my position.

The largest rebellious uprising in British penal history took place 20 years ago,in April 1990. Five major riots occurred, with disturbances occurring in some 25 prisons in total. The and most well known of these was Strangeways, the riot 'began' the whole months activity. According to the official Report into the riots by Lord Woolf, the prison system came within a whisker of total collapse.

There are some in the prisoner political community who argue that the rebellions led to positive changes for prisoners and so assert that future violence may be a valid option for provoking change .

I profoundly disagree. This should be a matter of demonstrable fact, rather than empty assertion. Did the riots lead to better conditions for prisoners? Such a simple question leads down many avenues so I will restrict myself to two. The first is physical conditions, the other the new mechanisms of control that were the institutions response to those riots.

When I began this sentence, if wanted to use the toilet I either had to hope for beneficent staff to unlock me or use my piss-pot. The latter was more likely and led to hundreds of men queuing to empty their sewerage in a communal sluice each morning. It was a disgusting business. If I wanted distraction or entertainment, I was limited to a brief weekly trip to whatever cupboard passed for the library, or a small transistor radio locked to AM stations and powered by batteries only.

Today, I have a toilet just behind where I sit to write in my cell. Really, just over my shoulder. My bladder has never been so pampered. Ahead of me is a 14 inch TV, joined to an electric supply. I can hardly claim that physical conditions have not improved .

But change can be merely a matter of the passage of time. Whether, and which, changes flowed from our ripping off the roofs is a far more subtle question. The installation of in-cell sanitation did accelerate after the riots, though some scattered wings still rely on buckets in their cells.

Whether the new privileges were spurred by riot is more hotly debated. TV's only made a serious appearance in the late 1990's, with games consoles soon after. A gap of some 6 to 8 years between events weakens the argument that riot saw us being showered with goodies; I say it weakens the case fatally.

What is more obvious and, I argue, more fundamental are the layers of control that were overlaid on our daily existence after the riots. For example, all front line staff are now trained in what the PS coyly terms "Control and Restraint"; that is, the physical methods of controlling (and inflicting huge pain upon) prisoners.

Whereas it was once the case that we had all privileges automatically, losing them via disciplinary charges, it is now the case that we earn privileges through compliance. Only those on the highest privilege level. Enhanced, can buy PlayStations for instance.This is called the Incentives and Earned Privileges System, the IEPS. It is capricious, dependent on the whims and fancies of staff. It has none of the safeguards or legal standards of formal disciplinary charges and is used explicitly as an adjunct to the disciplinary system. This is officially denied, but there you are. Prisoners believe it is a daily source of injustice. We are subject to a layer of control that now impinges on every aspect of our daily lives.

The system also professionalised its Security apparatus, instituting complex information gathering systems that often rely upon recruiting prisoners to grass. Alongside this, new methods were created to deal with troublesome elements, giving the Ministry of Justice the power to place people who have committed no disciplinary offence in segregation for indefinite periods.

Thus the "depth" of control has intensified hugely since the riots, with some of these developments being explicit responses to the rebellion. One result is a fragmented prisoner population, angry yet demoralised and frustrated.

Having the TV is very nice, thank you very much. Whether it was a pacifier given in response to rioting is doubtful and whether it is a fair exchange for the imposition of a thick layer of surveillance and control is something I openly question.


  1. Having read that, I could be wrong but it seems the real response was simply to deliberately 'fragment and demoralize' you so prisoners couldn't organize themselves to protest like that again instead of actually sitting down with people like you to address the heart of the matter so that meaningful change could happen.

  2. Society might wish to lock people up and throw away the key; a prison riot can have the effect of reminding people in the wider community of the prisoners existence, the unfair treatment they receive and the desire among prisoners to have self respect and control over their lives.

    Remembering the prison riots in the 1990's, I wrote some thoughts about them in a diary that I kept at that time. They did connect with people on the outside, I felt quite excited and remember talking to other political associates of mine about them.

    Their position was perhaps more like your conclusions on the matter, that the repressive measures after such events might be huge and that the situation was sad.

    The criminal justice system is the concern of all of us, whether we are inside or outside.

    The nature of the current prison system will have us believe otherwise; they make out that it is solely the fault of those individuals locked up.

    True justice cannot and is not attainable with the general (and massive) inequalities that exist in the society we live in.

    The solution lies in changing the whole system, whatever it takes to achieve this.

    I guess in part, what I am saying is that I can see a positive role a prison riot might have, but people have to go really carefully and think about how prisons can take a very revengeful position on such matters.

    Anyway, this message comes with love to you and your fellow inmates, thank you for this eye opening blog and I wish you luck, love and success for your future.

  3. I have studied the history of riots outside prison in the 18th and 19th century, and they occured when the legitimate channel for airing grievances became blocked. The same applied in prison with the riots of April 1990, in particular the riot at Strangeways.

    It did force prison reforms through, but it also produced the Prison Security Act 1992 designed to snuff out any resistence.

    Following the riot at Risley, the authorities invoked the Prison Security Act 1992. However, the jury decided that the inmates had engaged in lawful rebellion against unlawful conditions and the ring leaders were found not guilty.

    Unless the authorities stop messing around and ensure that convicted prisoners get their human and legal right to the vote, I can see that prisoners may have to resort to using their only weapon left at their disposal once all legitimate channels to air their greivance have been blocked.

  4. I said at the time (OK i was 10) that the rioter should have been machine gunned on the roof, and i would implement that if i was in charge and it happened tomorrow.

    Hey, what do you think of joe arpaio?


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