Talk given to the After Strangeways webinar

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 24 February 2021

To understand where we’re going, it’s helpful to understand where we’ve come from.

Law and order themes first started appearing in party election manifestos with the 1959 General Election. From the 1970s on, these themes became more prominent, with a growing political consensus around the need for tougher law and order policies.

The Conservative election victory in 1979 was a something of a turning point, though it built on what came before. The Conservative manifesto bemoaned what it described as the “growing disrespect for the rule of law” and identified a number of enemies of the rule of law. These included: “violent criminals and thugs”, “hooligans”, “immigrants” and “the young unemployed in the ethnic communities”, “strike committees and pickets”, “terrorism” and “convicted terrorists”.

This world-view reached its purest expression during the year-long miners strike in 1984-85, when the government deployed the police and the criminal law to target striking miners.

Another sign of the barely repressed tensions and social conflicts of the period came on 31 March 1990, when an estimated 200,000 people gathered in central London to protest the introduction of the poll tax. The organisers claimed the police attacked indiscriminately. “I think we lost it a bit”, one police officer reportedly remarked. Hundreds were left injured.

The following day, the 25-day Strangeways prison protest kicked off, the largest and longest of a number of prison disturbances to break out that month. The connection between the prison disturbances and the poll tax demonstration was remarked on at the time.

A prison officer in Dartmoor, one of the other prisons where disturbances broke out, said that the prison disturbances should be put in “the context of other riots… such as … the London poll tax riot the night before the Strangeways riot… A large percentage of prisoners see themselves either unjustly imprisoned or overly oppressed while in prison”.

I offer this brief history to put in context the Strangeways protest: it was overdetermined by many developments and cross-currents in wider society. There were also specific factors, distinctive to the prison system, that were long-standing and deep-rooted. The Woolf Report into the protests at Strangeways and other prisons observed that:

prison riots cannot be dismissed as one-off events, or as local disasters, or a run of bad luck. They are symptomatic of a series of serious underlying difficulties in the prison system.

It is often said that prisons policy took a punitive turn after the Strangeways prison protest; particularly with the appointment of Michael Howard as Home Secretary in 1993. At the time, it was the Home Secretary, rather than, as today, the Justice Secretary, who was responsible for our prisons.

“Prison works”, Mr Howard told the Conservative party conference a few years after Strangeways. “It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists, and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice”.

In the twenty five years following Howard’s speech the male prison population nearly doubled. The women’s prison population – though numerically much smaller – grew by even more: by around 150 per cent.

Developments since the Strangeways protest – the toughening of sentences, the growth in the prison population, the tightening of security in prisons – can be seen as a rejection of Woolf’s observation, and something of a two-fingered salute by the British establishment to the Strangeways protestors and other prisoners whose legitimate grievances have been left unaddressed.

But if the years since the Strangeways protest have been marked by intensifying punitiveness, this is part of a longer story. In the years between the Second World War and the late 1960s, for instance, the prison population more than doubled. It has grown by a further 150 per cent between the late 1960s and today.

The Strangeways protest, while the largest prison protest there has ever been in the UK – at least so far – it forms part of a long history of prison protests and prisoner resistance against the brutality and violence they face.

Twenty years before the Strangeways protest, a short-lived stand-off between staff and prisoners in Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight — it lasted less an hour — left 12 prison officers and at least 35 prisoners injured. Reports of prison officer brutality were widespread.

The wife of one prisoner told The Times that her husband “had eight stitches in wounds in his head and some of his fingers were broken and bandaged”. Two witnesses saw a prison officer grab a prisoner saying “I have been waiting for this, you black bastard”. At least one of the protesters, Richardson gang veteran Frankie Fraser, “took a severe beating”, according to a prison medical officer, leaving his eyesight and sense of balance permanently damaged.

During the subsequent trial of nine of the protesters, it emerged that prisoners returning to their cells were forced to run the gauntlet of prison officers lining the corridors, who beat them as they ran past.

In his account of life in Parkhurst in the period leading up to the 1969 disturbance, Brian Stratton detailed the many petty rules and regulations, and outright staff brutality, that contributed to the subsequent protest. Indeed, Stratton recounts his own warning to MPs, delivered a few months before the Parkhurst stand-off, that “there will be a riot unless you can get something done to stop the brutality”.

As Joe Sim, one of the co-organisers of this webinar series has argued, the story of the past fifty years is not one of a fall from liberalism into punitiveness, but of ongoing, intensifying punitiveness.

Richard's talk is based on a longer piece on the politics of imprisonment, which he wrote for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Prison Service Journal.