On the first day of the Strangeways protest, in April 1990, one prisoner declared that, ‘We are having no more. We are not animals, we are human beings’.
This painful and angry message reflected the motivation behind what became the longest demonstration in British prison history.
The prisoners’ direct experiences of the Strangeways regime convinced them to take the concerted action they did in spite of the retributive reckoning that would inevitably follow from the state. The prison’s dehumanising and toxic regime meant that contempt, degradation, callous indifference, violence and the threat of violence, were institutionalised. If they had not taken to the roof, despite the formal and informal retribution they would suffer, would the world have known about their experiences, and the state’s abject failure to fulfill its duty of care towards them? Given the pathological levels of secrecy suffocating British prisons, and the insidious relationship between the media and the state, the answer to that question is patently obvious.
Who's telling the truth about prisons?
Prisoners have consistently been vilified and dismissed as incorrigible liars when they have described life inside. They, and us, inhabit a world where those at the top of the ladder of power - who are regarded, and who hypocritically regard themselves, as never lying, never committing crime and never doing harm - have easy access to the media which allows them to disseminate a particular ‘truth’ about prisons and those confined within them.
Even the much-lauded, but narrowly focused, and ultimately futile, Woolf inquiry into the disturbance, qualified the prisoners’ accounts of what happened by indicating that their evidence was not given on oath, a point that was not made about those state agents who also gave evidence. And yet, it was the prisoners at Strangeways, and not the state and its media acolytes, who were telling the truth about the prison’s physically withering and psychologically lacerating regime.
The failures of imprisonment
Over the last three decades, in many ways, the crisis inside has gone from bad to worse as the recent, safety statistics released by the Ministry of Justice and a number of reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons have documented: punitive, wounding conditions; corrosive pain and misery differentially experienced by black and minority ethnic and women prisoners; capricious discretion; and a demoralising lack of democratic accountability in regimes which traumatise and terrorise and which generate a sense of isolation and abandonment, despite the best efforts of some staff to be supportive and empathic.
The scandalous failure to implement the Prison Inspectorate’s recommendations across a range of areas has only reinforced the dominant culture of immunity and impunity that prevails. The devastating levels of self-harm and preventable deaths which have occurred in the last three decades provide a clear demonstration of this point. Other negative developments over this period have only added to the deep sense of crisis and foreboding gripping the prison system, and the criminal justice system more broadly.
A disinterested drift
Successive governments, over the past 30 years, should be utterly ashamed at their lamentable failure - political and moral - to learn lessons from three decades ago. Politicians have fallen back on simplistic, banal sound-bites or have offensively, and wrongly, caricatured critics of their policies as being pro-crime and anti-victim.
The continuous merry-go-round of justice and prison ministers has only added to a sense of disinterested drift. Unprincipled, puerile, political expediency has put prisons on the road to nowhere, except possibly to another Strangeways with potentially catastrophic consequences for prisoners and prison staff.
What is needed are radically different criminal justice, penal and social policies built on social justice rather than criminal injustice, which, if implemented, would reduce crime and recidivism, protect victims and generate a collective sense of safety and protection for prisoners and for the wider society. Whether those in power have the vision, courage and good sense to think imaginatively and develop such radical alternatives is an entirely different matter.
Professor Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University. He is also one of the speakers at the conference on 1 April – After Strangeways: The past, present and future of prisons.