Thursday, April 8, 2010

Riot and Reform

The Bristol Prison Riot - A Personal Reflection - April 8th 1990.

The secret burden of imprisonment is that it is a mindlessly boring existence. It is dull and un-changing, from one year to the next everything moves to the beat of the same metronomic, life-sapping rhythm. The same cell, the same neighbours, the same routine, the same staff, the same food.

This elevates any break from the routine into an event of greater significance, it encourages a hothouse of gossip and rumour - any purchase that can be extracted from the smallest of events is leapt upon in an effort to mitigate the unremitting sameness. I once overslept and, not having seen me for a few hours the rumour was generated that I'd been shipped-out for some heinous act of rebellion. There was some sense of disappointment when I appeared for my lunch.

Such deadening dullness threaded the evening of Sunday, April the 1st 1990. Except that the largest prisoner uprising in British history was underway at Strangeways prison, played out across the communal TV that we absorbed at each opportunity. The events in Manchester sent a ripple through the system, and gave a glimpse of the possibilities that lay before each of us - we need not always accept being treated as subhuman. Each new news bulletin demoralised the staff. And yet this was a media event, it involved us in some way but was also held at bay by the thick glass of the television screen.

And then there followed a revolt at Dartmoor prison. Rightly renowned for its calculated indifference, brutality and contempt, a revolt was felt as being the only proper response. Short lived though the Dartmoor revolt was, it was necessary to evacuate some of the cons. As the nearest local prison, Horfield became their reception centre.

It was the understanding of cons at Horfield that those refugees sent from Dartmoor were not those involved in the riot. Drawing up to the prison on coaches, they were taunted by their police escort and became fractious. They were placed on A-Wing, a long Victorian construction usually holding short-termers.

Those, including myself, on the long-termer B-Wing had no knowledge of the events occurring on A-Wing. At just after 7pm, wing staff began instructing us to bang-up. This was an hour early; but given the vagaries of prison life we made no efforts to resist what we assumed was some small local emergency.

Using the urinal in the Three's recess, I could see some commotion on the second floor bridge/walkway that linked A-Wing with B and C Wings. It was unclear, but that there were cons and staff involved in some melee looked to be a fair assumption. We continued to bang-up.

Being at the rear of the wing, I didn't witness the unedifying scene of B-Wing staff running away to the gatehouse at the front of the prison. If I had, it would have made little sense - we were all locked up, the wing was secure.

Only when figures appeared on B-Wing's flat roof did we begin to appreciate what was developing around us. A-Wing was under the control of cons, and a number of cons on C-Wing were also out of their cells. All of the staff had run away. These people were now on our roof and were passing down to our windows lengths of metal ripped from the landings on A-Wing. Some of them were also searching out named individuals on my wing, those said to be the worst sex-cases.

My visceral urge to join a revolt was tempered by the fact that my first parole hearing was within a few months. Should I accept the reality that parole was not to happen - or should I continue to cling to the false hope generated by the process? I had served ten years.

The decision was taken out of my hands; my neighbour smashed through our adjoining wall - "Do you want to come out?". Like it or not, with a bloody great hole in my wall, I was involved. Not that this was a simple decision; history had taught us that after the riot there could be fearsome and violent retribution from the staff. Rioting is not being cheeky to some screw, it's not punching a governor in the eye; to rebel en-masse is to grip the whole edifice of power by the throat and spit in its face. The consequences of this would never be good, leading to a mixture of fear and excitement with each step further across the boundary. Moving through to his cell, we smashed our way through a series of adjoining cells until a small group of us was stationed in one cell. Each wall we breached increased our confidence and culpability. This was the place where we would smash our way out onto the landing spur. Using metal bars passed from the roof, it took some time to smash through the double layer of brick that presented the obstacle.

Once out on the landing, we found ourselves to be in a unique position. Each spur on the wing (three spurs on each of three landings) was locked off with a gate - except ours. This gave us access to the stairs, the whole of the ground floor, and the gated hatch to the roof. Whilst some attempted to smash through into other spurs, I forayed down to the ground and the PO's office. One of our party had badly cut his hand whilst smashing out of the cells, and I wanted the first aid kit. Dick was just ahead of me; the later consensus was that he wished to obtain any paperwork that identified him as an informer-come-rapist. Whilst I took the first aid kit, Dick stole the money from the staff kitty.

Back to the Threes. Our toughest obstacle was the gate that was set into the ceiling, preventing access to the roof. Shifts of cons worked from above and below to smash the concrete housing and, hours later, we had our 'time in the open air'.
The roof was flat, as was the identical C-Wing, although the Victorian A-Wing had a steeply pitched roof. It was damp, with occasional drizzle. Near the front was a concrete 'bunker' that held the water-tank.

I wandered the roof, enjoying the vista of the city laid out before me. Behind the nick was a residential road and the locals must have caught a sense of our excitement they stood in their bedroom windows watching, some holding up their kids to wave. If they had known the nature of some of those now held back by only the perimeter, waving their kids would have been the last thing...

A deep sense of satisfaction settled upon me. Looking across the wall I could see the gathering swarm of police who secured the perimeter. Down the internal road the riot screws, still known to us as Mufti squads, massed in their shields and armour like centurions out of time - or a carpet of cockroaches, their Kevlar carapace reflecting the moisture of the night air. I knew that they would return, and I knew that we would lose, but at that moment their prison was ours.

The water-tank bunker seemed to present a good strong-point, concrete with only two access points. I organised urns of water and bread and jam to be brought from our servery on the ground floor - any hope of holding out rested on physical resources as well as mental ones.

The excitement was too much for most. The majority of the rioters were short-termers from A Wing, whose conception of rebellion only extended to breaking anything they could. Historical perspective and future possibilities were swept aside in the rush to consume all the food and water within minutes. Harnessing a spontaneous outburst of anger and resentment into an organised rebellion failed in that moment.

Wrapping myself in my lifer-coat, now embedded with brick dust and glass, I kept wandering the roof. Unlike the others, wearing some sort of mask didn't cross my mind. Increasingly improbable and desperate plans floated through my head, the maddest being to manufacture an escape. To wrap myself in a mattress, tie myself to a length of rope, anchor that on the roof and to take a running dive for the wall. In my mind, I would clear the top and the mattress would cushion me when I swung and smashed against the outside. That the road was jammed with the police saved me from even attempting that insane trick.

The riot was lost, as are all ultimately. While prisoners can take physical possession for a while, staff reinforcements mean that any physical battle will be inevitably lost. Rebellions have their power in their political resonance, rather than their physical reality. The wing dispensary was emptied and people stood on the roof swapping bottles of liquid and packets of pills. "What are these?" Don't know... "I'll take a handful, and then we'll see..." One man, Jimmy the Ponce, insensible through drinking a bottle of chloral hydrate, was taken inside and laid on a mattress, unconscious. We shouted to the nearest screw that we had a man needing medical attention; assuming that there was some way to pass him to safety.
The screw lifted his visor and looked up at us, crowded around the barred window. "We'll pick him up when we come in..." His look made it plain that he meant, don't worry, we'll pick him up when we launch our counter-assault. All Jimmy remembers is waking up three days later in a prison two hundred miles away.

This was not an organised rebellion in any sense. It was an incoherent outpouring of resentment and bitterness. Once the breakable elements of the prison had been fractured and the medicine cabinet consumed then a steady stream made their way to the screws lines. They were searched, cuffed and bundled away to other prisons. The point of origin, A Wing, was internally destroyed and uninhabitable. C and B Wings were riddled with holes, but largely useable.

What to hold out for? There was no agenda. There wasn't even a group with whom to discuss an agenda. Having exhausted the entertainment possibilities of wandering the roof and observing the activities of the police and screws, I settled down in the water-bunker. A hot water pipe threaded around its inside and I found a warm corner in which to doze, excited voices still babbling around me.

Bastards. The screws cut the power and water, leaving me freezing. It was about 4 a.m., damp and flat. Fuck it. A staunch rebellious siege was the last thought of those around me; I went back to bed and slept for a few hours on a pile of blankets, brick dust and glass.

"Advance!". As a wake-up call, the sound of the riot squad making their way along the landing isn't the most comforting. My tension was ratcheted up by my cell being right at the end of a long spur. The Mufti moved along one cell at a time, noting which was empty, which occupied, which damaged.

They reached my door. The long flap over the observation slit flew upwards and a shield was rammed against the door. Eyes met mine through three layers of Perspex - his visor, his shield, the spy-hole... "Cell insecure! Cell insecure!" Bugger, he'd noticed the hole, the rubble... "Stand up and face the window"; I was ordered to have my back to the door, put my hands behind me head. They unlocked and charged in an instant, a shield at my back and a screw gripping each arm, twisting them into joint locks. I was surprised that they were holding the locks quite loosely; I expected full-on pain control.

I was walked across the way and dumped in a secure cell, to the surprise of the occupier who had made every effort to avoid involvement in this whole episode. We were locked-down for 24 hours before being fed. Still feeling the rebellious quiver, I assumed that the Institution had taken the point and would stop treating us with disregard; a key traditional indicator of this being food. So it was a surprise to be marched down in threes to the hotplate, passing groups of screws still in riot gear, to be served corned beef, mash and beans. My natural urge to complain was muffled by the fact that the screw serving it was wearing his crash helmet and wielded both a ladle and a riot stave. One of the more surreal meals I've enjoyed.

There were consequences to the riot, though to be fair to the screws these were legal rather than physical. I was swearing blind that I hadn't left my cell, that the hole was made by people from another wing. It seems they smashed in to free me, but I refused to take part... I did this without a blush, and in the knowledge that I had been the only one on the roof without a mask. Half the city must have seen me that night.

This scheme had some success, in that I was charged under the internal disciplinary rules rather than charged with a criminal offence. I was surely guilty: a hole in my wall, a pile of bricks on my floor... But I was saved by a screw. Screws have a natural instinct to over-egg any situation, but particularly disciplinary hearings. This one read his evidence, claiming that there "were tool marks in the plaster" of my cell wall. Interesting; my solicitor noted that cell walls were merely painted brick. The adjudicators - the then BoV - trooped to my cell, to return and find me not guilty. Thanks to that verdict, to this day I had no official involvement in the riot.

Ten years on, and I was on the same wing in the same prison, looking up at the gated hatch in the roof. I turned to the screw sitting on the landing and jabbed, "It's been a while since I've seen up in there...". He squirmed in his seat, memories slowly returning to his fat-soaked brain. He squealed. "You were up there in the riot, I saw you on the roof!!!" Walking away I said, "Pity you weren’t here on the day I was tried then..."


  1. I remember the Strangeways riots. I was 10 and had gone into work in Manchester with my dad for whatever reason. We had to drive past the prison on the way home and got caught up as the road was closed for the riot squad to mass outside the gates. So we got out of the car to have a look. Ade, my dad, held me up so I could wave to the prisoners on the roof. We got such a bollocking off a policeman for encouraging prisoners to think it was ok to break out of their cells.

  2. You must have many such anecdotes. Absolutely fascinating firsthand social history.

  3. I am sure I saw you on the telly then!

    Fantastic reading your account of those events, really good!


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