It was overseen by Noel Proctor, a former police officer turned Church of England chaplain. As he rose to thank a visiting army preacher for his sermon about redemption and forgiveness, a prisoner stood up and grasped the pulpit microphone.
The inmate was Paul Taylor. He knew the misery of life inside and prison officers’ brutality only too well.
Taking hold of the microphone he said, “I would just like to say, right, that this man has just talked about the blessing of the heart and a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot. Not with resentment, anger and bitterness and hatred being instilled in people.”
As the congregation began shouting and cheering, he said, “Fuck your system, fuck your rules.”
More prisoners began to join in and within fifteen minutes Strangeways fell under their control. It was the start of the biggest uprising in British penal history.
Prisoners grabbed keys from officers, who quickly withdrew, and began unlocking cells. Others opened doors with iron bars and fire extinguishers.
One remand prisoner recalled, “When I looked out of the spy hole in the door I saw lads running all over the place. Some had masks on and others were wearing prison officers’ uniforms.”
Hundreds made their way onto the roof of the prison. Many later spoke of the exhilaration of being free from the prison walls and being able to see the city. Prisoners sat on the roof until the early hours, talking and listening to a radio that had been wired up to a loudspeaker in the chapel.
Officers who had retreated to the prison car park tried to provoke a reaction by trading insults with the protesters on the roof.
Alan Lord, one of the first onto the roof, said, “Many were gesticulating and shouting, telling me they were going to break my arms and legs. I shouted back, ‘Who’s got your prison now?’”
Most of the inmates in Strangeways were from poor, working class areas of Manchester. Many, like Alan, had also been in the care system as children.
Tensions had been mounting in the prison for a long time before they finally exploded that Easter morning.
The conditions in the jail were dirty and dark. High security category A unit prisoners never saw the sun. Their cells were designed facing north west so that it never shone in. The exercise yard had covers over it.
Inmates were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. They were only let out for the hated “slopping out”, where a toilet bucket was emptied, a weekly shower or hour-long exercise.
On top of this was the routine humiliation and brutality by prison officers. The idea for a protest against the repression had its origins in the punishment block about a week earlier—and there had been some limited action.
But it was the savage assault on a black prisoner the evening before which acted as the catalyst for the uprising.
Several officers set upon Andrew Kazim in front of other inmates and injected him multiple times with psychotropic drug Largactil, also known as the “liquid cosh”. His fellow prisoners were disgusted by the attack—and they resolved to do something about it.
It was the cruelty and degradation of prison life which caused the uprising. But these conditions weren’t exclusive to Strangeways.
And when the riot kicked off, resistance quickly spread. Over the 25 days that the inmates controlled the prison, there were solidarity uprisings in 20 jails across Britain.
In Dartmoor up to 120 inmates took part in a large protest, taking to the roofs of two wings. They held up a banner which read, “Strangeways we are with you.”
And in Bristol some 400 inmates took control of three wings of Horfield prison for two days.
Meanwhile at Strangeways, some 140 were in control of five wings. As press and supporters gathered outside the jail the protesters on the roof articulated their demands.
They included better visiting facilities, including allowing physical contact and a play area for children.
Category A prisoners were also to be allowed to wear their own clothes and be sent food parcels. They also demanded longer times to exercise and an end to being cooped up in their cells for 23 hours a day.
While inmates tried to communicate with supporters, police blared sirens in an attempt to drown them out. So prisoners ripped a chalkboard from the jail’s classroom and wrote their demands on it.
And the demands were not limited to prison reform. Days before the uprising there had been riots against the implementation of the poll tax. On the roof of Strangeways prisoners held up a sign saying, “Smash the poll tax.”
During the siege battles took place between riot teams and prisoners. Some 300 riot police and prison officers stormed the site and set fire to a wing to smoke out the inmates.
They charged through the prison banging shields and shouting. The protesters set up a barricade and threw scaffolding bars at the officers. After a while the riot team retreated.
The right wing press demanded the uprising be swiftly put down. The Sun newspaper ran a headline saying, “Jail riot scum must be crushed.”
Alan offered to become a negotiator on the protesters’ behalf. Inmates had already helped younger prisoners who wanted to leave but were scared of reprisals get access to their parents or solicitors.
Alan was told to convince protesters to surrender—but many didn’t trust the authorities. They held up a banner which read “told we will die”, in reference to threats from officers.
Demands were put in place to ensure surrendering prisoners’ safety, including having photographs taken of their bodies to make sure they weren’t beaten up. Inmate numbers fell over the course of the 25 days, yet a solid core remained.
But it wasn’t long before the promises of peaceful surrender collapsed and the authorities went on the offensive.
Alan was one of the prisoners who did not surrender but was “snatched” in the last days of the protest and trussed up. A photo was taken showing his head and arms being forcibly held up while an officer grins beside him. Officers soon gained control of the ground level, while inmates still held the upper levels.
Paul was one of the last five on the roof. They were constantly sprayed with water.
After nearly a month on the roof, including in the snow and facing down threats from officers, they ended it on their own terms.
The uprising shook the entire penal system—and retribution was its aftermath. The “ring leaders” were sent off to prisons around Britain.
Meanwhile, the courts handed down punitive sentences to protesting prisoners.
Paul was given ten years. He was convicted of a brand new offence—prison mutiny. Alan was also convicted of prison mutiny, and was not released until 2013.
The prisoners’ uprising forced an inquiry into not only the riot, but its underlying causes. But the Woolf Inquiry did not take any evidence from the prisoners.
Instead it said it would not give them “self publicity”. And because some had alleged brutality by officers the inquiry would become “bogged down if it tried to establish the truth”.
The subsequent Woolf report made numerous recommendations, including a general improvement in prison conditions.
Overcrowding was a key issue in the uprising. The prison had been built in the 1860s to hold 970 inmates but in 1990 there were more than 1,600. Often three inmates were held in a cell designed for one. But this is still true of prisons today. Last year the Howard League for Penal Reform found that on any given day 20,000 inmates were held in overcrowded cells.
And rates of prisoner suicide are surging. Numbers of suicides in jails in England and Wales are at a seven-year high.
Yet there has been resistance. Last year inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Grampian in Peterhead rioted for 14 hours. Reports say 41 prisoners protested after refusing to return to their cells.
This followed an uprising at HMP Northumberland last March, where inmates took over an entire wing after refusing to return to their cells.
And in January last year prisoners at HMP Oakwood near Birmingham took part in their second protest in as many months.
The Strangeways riot brought into the public’s consciousness what life was like on the inside.
But conditions have not got better—they have worsened. It will take more resistance to finish off what the Strangeways inmates started.
‘Things are going backward in prisons now’
Noel Smith was an inmate in south London’s Wandsworth jail when the Strangeways riot broke out. He took part in a solidarity protest.
“When we heard about the uprising it was euphoria in the prison.
“Our little thing happened in the exercise yard. There was a sterile area of the prison where they were doing works.
“We got in there and took over a JCB and tried to smash through the walls to release 150 Category A prisoners.
“Tensions had been building in Wandsworth for some time. The food was so bad and the screws were so arrogant.
“There was one occasion when we came down for our meal and the screws had pasted on the hotplate their menu—and it was all this nice food. All we had was corned beef and slop.
“I work for Inside Time newspaper now and we get so many letters from prisoners about their conditions. Things are going back to pre-Strangeways.
“There’s still 20 prisons slopping out. And things are going backwards with all the budget cuts and restricted regimes.
“You’ve got inmates coming into jails and in their first week—the most vulnerable time—they are being made to wear prison uniforms and sleep in a bare cell.”