Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Post-Riot Woolf to Learmont

The rebellions at Strangeways, and other prisons such as Bristol, Dartmoor, Cardiff and Pucklechurch were seminal in the course of modern prison history. In the month of April 1990, five large prisons were temporarily under the control of prisoners, and some twenty other prisons suffered some type of disturbance. The nation had seen nothing like it.

There are few who were involved who do not carry some small pride in those events, regardless of the eventual outcome. It demonstrated that we could have an impact on the course of our lives and the sensibilities of our keepers; and some of us will always remember that essential point.

The rebellion was responded to by a judicial inquiry led by Lord Woolf and the Prison Inspector, Judge Tumin. Their inquiry, and the report that followed, was unique in four ways. The inquiry was held in public; the views of prisoners were actively canvassed; the explanation for the riots broke away from the prior orthodoxy; and the response of the government to the report was broadly positive.

To those who live their existence outside of the Looking Glass world of prisons, I doubt these elements seem to be unusual or unreasonable. But to insiders, they were as unique as the riots themselves. Given that disorder in prison is a perpetual feature of the system, that no previous inquiry had taken the time to ask prisoners why they rebelled should stand out as a symptom of the official mindset that helps stoke revolt. Academics were consulted, penologists and criminologists, politicians and staff; all are usually invited to the table for discussions. But never prisoners.

And inquiries never took place in public. The world of prisons is a grubby one, and maintaining control over the perceptions of prisons is crucial to the criminal justice system. Public inquiries risk exposing issues that policy-makers would rather were ignored. One example being the role of PDA branch officers attempting to bribe prisoners to riot, as happened with me in 1986. The prior inquiries that took place, in private, were usually published - but not always. To this day the private inquiry into the events at Wormwood Scrubs in 1979 remain unpublished. Why? Because it would confirm that a peaceful protest by the Lifers on D Wing was broken up by a deliberate brutal assault by screws. Hence the surprise at Woolf holding a public inquiry.

Historically, inquiries into riots invariably led to asinine conclusions, usually based upon the bestial nature of prisoners. We riot just because we can. Woolf broke from this orthodoxy, concluding that the riots had their roots in the fact that the prison service had failed to convince us that we were being treated with justice and fairness. This was a carefully worded report and it is noteworthy that Woolf did not assert that we were not being ill or unjustly treated; only that we felt as such. Woolf saw the proper and sustainable regime as being a balance between security, control and justice. This was an unexpected and welcome break from the past.

One astonishing result of the Woolf Report was a Government White Paper which mooted the idea that prison "was an expensive way of making bad people worse", and that imprisonment should be a last resort in sentencing. Coming from a Tory Home Secretary, this was nothing short of a revolution.

On the landings, there was a vague air that all was possible, that Woolf had opened the door to a myriad possibilities. A nod to increasing our perceptions of the legitimacy of the system was the creation of a formal complaints system, including an independent Ombudsman. The post-Woolf period was a strange and unsettled one, with the shackles of the orthodox past being weakened.

It was not to last. Within two years a new and desperate Tory Home Secretary declared that "prison works" and signalled a clampdown on prison regimes. Between 1990 and 1995 we saw a shift from a conditional enlightenment to a harsh system that was dominated by an all pervasive concern with security and control. Justice was trampled in the dust, a victim of the rush for populist votes. In essence, 20 years after the seminal rebellions of 1990, we prisoners find ourselves more controlled than ever, and our concerns and interests smothered under a blanket of policies, procedures and performance targets, allied to a spineless managerialist culture that always looks upwards to its superiors. What happens below is seemingly irrelevant. Until the next rebellion, of course.


  1. I have spent over a week reading EVERY one of your posts and one thing constantly strikes me, you're incredibly valuable input into the prison system. When I started reading your blog I was one of the "Daily Mail brigade" but now I have been educated by you my attitude is very different.

    For a start I am of the opinion that you have atoned for your crime, there is absolutely no reason to hold you further, you are of no risk to the public what-so-ever, that much is blatantly obvious. Second, your education and obvious intelligence lends you a unique perspective on the prison system, a perspective that MUST be encouraged. I have taken the liberty of emailing David Cameron and asking him to seriously consider your value as an advisor.

  2. Bah, typo. Used "you're" instead of "your." My apologies

  3. I'm probably being over cynical, but I wondered if the tactics have changed, such that the current restrictions etc. are modelled as being to benefit you?

    This is my experience in a similar but different situation: we are told that the rules and restrictions put in are for our own benefit, to enable us and support us, that everything that is done is out of kindness and so on.

    Or organisations claim to be enabling and supportive but then act with anything but that at the coal face and with apparent impunity.

    I see it in the wider society too: measures that Thatcher would have blushed at and that would have caused mass dissent under her rule are sidled in with little fanfare as necessary due to the terrorism threat or to provide us with the best quality of life or for the correct rule of order etc.

    It is all insidiuos control?


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