Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Strangeways 25 Years On - The One That Got Away.

It was depressing to hear Lord Woolf express his concern this morning that prison conditions today remind him of the situation in 1990 just before the 25 day riot and rooftop protest at Manchester’s Strangeways prison. Woolf’s inquiry into what happened there and in the other prisons which subsequently saw disturbances – an inquiry to which every prisoner and prison officer was invited to give evidence- remain highly relevant. 

His overarching conclusion was that prisons required a balance between security, control and justice and that the third of these had been neglected. Conditions inside Manchester prison were intolerable in the months leading up to the riot and successive governments had failed to provide the resources for the Prison Service which were needed to provide for an increased prison population in a humane manner.

Of the 12 key recommendations Woolf made, all bar one were accepted by the government in a White Paper published in September 1991. There is no doubt that the inquiry led to important improvements. Slopping out was eventually brought to an end, telephones were introduced into all prisons and an ombudsman appointed to handle complaints.

The recommendation which was not accepted was for a new prison rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than is provided for in its certified normal level of accommodation, with provisions for parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is a material departure from that rule. Rather than accept this limitation on numbers in individual prisons, the government specifically established a higher measure of “operational capacity” for each.


Yes when this higher level is exceeded, emergency measures have to be taken- early release or the use of police cells. But the response effectively built overcrowding into the prison system in perpetuity. Had the government accepted Woolf’s original recommendation, not only would standards have improved inside jails, but we would arguably not have seen the doubling of the prison population .The sentence inflation introduced by Michael Howard and continued by his successors would have been unaffordable. Parliament would have focussed earlier on the need for Justice Reinvestment- the transfer of resources away from prisons and into the kind of prevention and rehabilitation measures which reduce the need for its use.

Woolf later came to see overcrowding as a cancer of the system which limited implementation of his agenda for reform
. There were other factors too, notably the priority given to security after the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes. But too many prisoners and too few resources show ,once again, that the cancer never went away and its worst symptoms- like the Strangeways riot- could easily return. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent should be read by EVERY parliamentary candidate - many of whom should then seek advice about what other research they need to undertake, particularly into early release both automatic and after individual approval and community sentences.

    Most members of the Chamber of House of Lords (who share the duty of monitoring Governement and introducing legislation) should also read it and where necessary do the additional research suggested

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