Strangeways: 25 Years On

Former inmate Noel 'Razor' Smith examines the legacy of the most serious prison riot in British history

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On 1 April 1990, Paul Taylor, a small-time crook from Birkenhead, rose from his seat in Strangeways' prison chapel and strode up to the altar during Sunday service. He took the microphone from Father Noel Proctor, who had been addressing the congregation, and spoke to the 309 prisoners present. The sermon was being recorded for a prayer group and Taylor can clearly be heard shouting: "I would just like to say, right, that this man has just talked about the blessing of the heart and how a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot – not with resentment, anger, bitterness and hatred being instilled in people."

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Another prisoner joined in, roaring, "Fuck your system! Fuck your rules!" This was followed by applause and angry cheers. An officer tried to intervene but was punched to the ground by Taylor, before inmates ripped the keys from his belt and turned on the remaining staff, who panicked and fled from the chapel under a hail of blows from the makeshift weapons crafted by smashing up furniture. The Strangeways Riot had started.

The title of "Britain's worst prison" has been attached to a number of institutions over the years, but in the Eighties that dubious epithet was taken by Strangeways, now known as HM Prison Manchester. In the latter part of the 20th century, there were certain prisons in this country that had such fearsome reputations for violence, brutality and ill-treatment that inmates would attempt suicide rather than allow themselves to be transferred to them. Strangeways was up there with the worst.

The officers were mostly tough ex-servicemen who treated prisoners like the enemy and afforded them little mercy. Beatings by gangs of screws were commonplace and anyone who tried to complain would soon wish they hadn't bothered.

"The screws wouldn't take any shit from prisoners in Strangeways," said John "Shotgun" Shelly, an armed robber who was serving time for shooting a drug dealer in the head at point-blank range. "They boasted they were the biggest and hardest gang and would do anyone who dared to take them on. With terrible conditions in the jail and a bad attitude from the officers, the riot was a chance for us to be on top for a change."

Strangeways had been ripe for rebellion. Officially, the prison only had space for 970 men, but it was heavily overcrowded in 1990 with 1,647 packed two and three into cells that had originally been built for one occupant. It was a crumbling, depressing Victorian warehouse where prisoners were given nothing and plenty of it.

As an ex-prisoner who has spent more than three decades in and out of the British penal system, I had spent a couple of months in Strangeways in 1988 and found it to be a cesspit that stank of urine, faeces and ancient body odour. The screws had a bad reputation for violence and brutality against prisoners and I witnessed several assaults by staff even in the short time I was held there. The prison had a bad atmosphere, too, and felt constantly on the edge of kicking off. It came as no surprise to me when the place finally erupted.

In his subsequent report into the Strangeways riot, Lord Justice Woolf, who headed the inquiry, described the conditions in the months leading up to the riot as "intolerable" and viewed a "combination of errors" by staff and management at the prison as a central contributing factor to the troubles.

The Woolf Inquiry heard evidence from both prisoners and staff that in the weeks preceding the revolt, dozens of messages were given to the authorities in the prison warning that there was to be a major protest in the chapel, some even giving the date as 1 April and naming the ringleaders. The staff were told that some of the prisoners were going to be "tooled up" (prison parlance for being armed with weapons).

According to evidence given to the inquiry, on the night before the riot, an unnamed prisoner passed a note under his cell door to the night-patrol staff warning that the prison was "going up" next morning in the chapel. The authorities responded by doubling the number of officers in the chapel to 14 and refusing permission for any sex offenders or other prisoners on the protection wings to attend the service, knowing they would be instant targets for violence if it did kick off. The fact they expected just 14 officers to control more than 300 pissed-off prisoners bent on venting their feelings, after being repeatedly warned in advance of trouble, speaks of either dangerous complacency or extreme arrogance on the part of the authorities, in my opinion.

In order to understand what could make prisoners turn on their captors and try to pull down the system, you have to look at how the system worked, or didn't, in the first place. Having spent time in more than 38 prisons, I can personally testify to some of the brutal practices, from my first taste of incarceration in 1975 up to and, in some cases, beyond the riots.

Prisoners were treated like cattle, screws ruled with an iron fist and anyone who dared to question them was dealt with via a good kicking and a long period in solitary confinement in a strip-cell (a bare cell with nothing but a blanket and a piss-bucket). Local prisons, such as Strangeways, were often crowded, filthy hellholes where concepts such as dignity and decency were left at the main gate.

In 1990, prisoners were still "slopping out": every morning when the cells were opened there would be a line of prisoners queuing up to empty their pots and buckets of bodily waste into a central sluice on each landing. The  smell was horrendous, like an ante-chamber of hell, and the sluice could often not handle the sheer volume of effluent and would invariably flood, spilling its contents over the side and onto the floor.

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Often prisoners would be gingerly stepping through pools and rivulets of faeces-tainted urine that would drip over the edge of the landings and on to the heads of anyone unwary enough to be passing below. Tempers would fray during slop-out time as queue-jumpers attempted to empty their mess and invariably ended up rolling around the pissy floor with angry objectors. And this was all before breakfast – every day.

The Woolf Inquiry was told that in the week prior to the riot, relations between prisoners and staff hit new lows. On 26 March, a prisoner named Barry Morton was beaten by prison officers after being taken to the punishment block to be searched for drugs after a visit from his mother. Morton was released from the block and back on to normal location with a black eye and broken nose.

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The following day, he and a prisoner called Tony Bush, who also claimed to have been punched around by staff in the punishment block, managed to climb on to the prison roof and staged a 24-hour protest about staff brutality. On 31 March, it was reported that an unnamed black prisoner was seriously assaulted by prison staff, in full view of other inmates, and injected with Largactil, know to prisoners as "the liquid cosh".

Alan Lord was 28 at the time of the riots. Originally from North Manchester, he was convicted of murder during the course of a street robbery in 1981 when he was 19. Lord was handed a life sentence with a recommended tariff of 15 years, and was in the chapel at Strangeways on that fateful Sunday morning. He subsequently became the prisoners' main negotiator during the 25-day siege at the prison. He remembers the brutality of Strangeways well.

Finally released in December 2012 after serving 32 years in prison, he has spoken about his involvement for the first time. "It was always brutal in Strangeways," Lord says. "It was the norm in there for the screws to dish out daily beatings, especially to the young and vulnerable lads. They were on a power trip because they had been getting away with it for so long."

Paul Taylor, the prisoner who initiated the riot in the chapel, was 25 and had spent most of his life first in care, then in and out of juvenile and finally adult jails. At the time of the riot he was serving three years for theft, deception and assault. He had been assaulted by prison officers during a previous sentence at Strangeways. No stranger to violence himself, he usually tried to give as good as he got.

So, when he and 309 others burst out of the chapel at Strangeways that Sunday morning, like most of them, he was looking for a bit of payback. Some prisoners were armed with fire extinguishers, table legs and metal fire buckets. Someone shouted, "Let's do it! Get the bastards", and several prison officers were attacked and chased down the landings. More keys were seized.

By noon, rioting prisoners, their numbers now swelled by those whose cell doors had been unlocked by the initial rioters, had control of most of the prison. The Woolf Inquiry heard evidence from four officers who guarded C wing – the "protection" area where sex offenders were segregated for their own safety under the notorious "Rule 43" — who managed to unlock and evacuate 73 of them before the rioters stormed the wing baying for blood. Seven were left locked in their cells, as were around 20 on E wing.
"I made a point of seeking out a nonce who the Manchester Evening News reported was charged with the attempted rape of a six-year-old girl," Paul Taylor said. "I found him and attacked him quite badly. He was thrown over the landing and then attacked by a gang of young prisoners as well. He was quite severely injured."

All of the sex offenders were dragged, absolutely terrified and screaming, from their cells and attacked by gangs of prisoners. Derek White, who had been charged with indecent assault and buggery, suffered serious head wounds and died in North Manchester General Hospital on 3 April. White's was the only death among the Rule 43 prisoners, but that was not through lack of trying by the rioters. If there is one group whom prisoners detest even more than bullying and brutal staff, it is sex offenders.

"The nonces were screaming like they had made their fucking victims scream," Shotgun Shelly told me later. "I was gutted that only one of the dirty bastards died but all of them were seriously injured. I heard later that some of them were castrated, good enough for them."

Alan Lord has little sympathy for those prisoners who were attacked when the riots started to kick off: "Personally, I was not around when the attacks on the nonces were taking place, I was up on the roof. I do not condemn what the prisoners did to them because I think they deserved everything they got. Anyone who abuses women or children deserves whatever comes their way. I heard they got a good beating."

Paul Taylor and another prisoner are hosed down by water cannons on Strangeways' roof

At midday on that first day, almost all of the staff had deserted the prison and David Evans, the general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, described conditions inside the prison as a "war zone". He told the media: "It is impossible for the officers to get into certain sections of the prison and establish the exact number of casualties because the prisoners have control and they (the staff) are attacked and pelted with missiles."

Several areas of the prison were burning and Manchester Police had set up a cordon around the jail in case any prisoners tried to escape. Strangeways' governor Brendan O'Friel later told the inquiry: "We had about 200 staff on duty, and we must have lost nine or 10 as casualties. I tell you what really bugged us was the element of April Fools' about it. We rang off-duty staff to call them in and most of them said, 'You must be joking, is this an April Fools'?'"

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In the meantime, the prisoners were busy ransacking the hospital wing in a hunt for drugs, and the kitchen stores for food. Convicted London armed robber and Category A prisoner Kevin Brown, who was serving 17 years at the time, said: "I was only up there for a 'laydown' [a punishment transfer from another prison] and when the lads broke me out of my cell I couldn't believe what I was seeing! There were cons all over the gaff, screeching like lunatics and armed with all sorts of home-made weapons. It was chaos.

"I made my way to the kitchens where we found freezers full of steaks, chops and joints of meat that were obviously meant for the screws as the food prisoners were served in Strangeways wasn't fit for dogs. A few of us made a fire and started cooking."

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Brown was grabbed by a "control and restraint" snatch squad after three days on the loose in the prison and shipped out. The initial euphoria of the prisoners at being released from their cells and being allowed to take a bit of revenge on their captors and surroundings was short-lived.

"At first there was mayhem," Alan Lord said. "As soon as the doors started opening, everyone was running all over the place. The mood was electrifying with inmates shouting and cheering. But a good majority of prisoners gave themselves up by the end of the first day. Some even just went back to their cells to await their fate."


On that Sunday evening, more than 800 prisoners had given themselves up, and in the next few days another 400 were captured by HMP snatch squads, usually after vicious hand-to-hand fighting, and removed from the prison. The remaining hard core of rioters took to the roof and barricaded any route up to their vantage point.

Wearing items of uniform discarded by prison staff, including officers' hats, they spent the next 22 days throwing tiles at police and prison staff and shouting to family members, media and the public who had gathered outside the walls. They held up prison-issue sheets with hand-scrawled messages of protest and defiance. They danced and capered around the roof in a show of defiance. The authorities responded by trying to stop them sleeping at nights – shining strong lights on to the roof and playing loud noises including hammers on corrugated iron, blaring music, women's voices and barking dogs – while prison officers banged their shields with batons and shouted insults at the remaining hold-outs and regularly fired high-powered water hoses at the roof. Any prisoner who ventured down into the prison was quickly snatched by waiting patrols.

Before long, news of the uprising spread: riots and disturbances broke out in 23 other prisons in England, Scotland and Wales while a media circus descended on Strangeways, photographing and filming the staunchest rioters holding banners and giving clenched fist salutes while perched on the roof. Prisoners had finally had enough and the events at Strangeways showed them that now was the time to rise up and make their feelings known.

Alan Lord, as lead negotiator between the rioters and the authorities, presented the prisoners' demands. They wanted: improved visiting facilities, including the right to physical contact with their visitors and a children's play area; Category A prisoners (the highest security inmates) to be allowed to wear their own clothes; longer exercise periods; and an end to 23 hours a day locked up in their cells.

They outlined their grievances to Manchester Evening News' editor Michael Unger, who was allowed into the prison as an "independent observer" to speak to the rioters. Their grievances included mental and physical brutality, poor food and conditions, and the misuse of the "liquid cosh" to control prisoners.
On the 23rd day, Alan Lord was called down from the roof to talk to the authorities about meeting the prisoners' demands, but he was jumped by a snatch squad and shipped off to another prison.

By 25 April, there were just five prisoners left on the roof. They were almost out of the food they had hauled up from the kitchen stores and the daily soakings and noise had worn them down. They agreed to end their protest and they were taken down from the roof in a cherry picker. Paul Taylor was the last man down, setting foot on the hydraulic platform at 6.24pm. The longest prison riot in British history was finally at an end.

Prisoner Alan Lord, who acted as a negotiator, holds up a sign: "Our supply of food and water is sufficent enough to sustain us for weeks, possible months"

In total, 194 people were injured — 47 prisoners and 147 officers — and two died: sex offender Derek White and prison officer Walter Scott, who suffered a heart attack. Much of the Victorian jail was destroyed and had to undergo a £100m refurbishment before being renamed HM Prison Manchester.

In the trials following the riot, 23 prisoners were sentenced to 140 years' additional imprisonment for what the prison governor described as "an explosion of evil". Ringleaders Alan Lord and Paul Taylor received sentences of 10 years each for prison mutiny, but were acquitted of the murder of Derek White. When passing sentence on the rioters, the judge remarked, "You had your period of arrogance, but now the price must be paid and paid by you."

Taylor served his time and was released. He now says he regrets all of his acts of violence on that day. In 2010, he told the Manchester Evening News: "A lot of prisoners had come through the care system and had been physically or sexually abused. They feel outraged when they read of a child or woman or elderly person attacked. Their outrage is rooted in their own experience and humanity."

Alan Lord served 32 years; his sentence was extended again because of several prison escapes. He now runs his own gym and has written a book about his time at Strangeways.

The subsequent Woolf Report led to an overhaul in UK prison standards, with a recommendation that toilets be installed in all cells. At the time of going to press, there are 84,121 people in prison nationwide, 8,925 more than can be officially held in a "good, decent standard of accommodation". The new HM Prison Manchester has 1,114 inmates, 149 more than it ideally should but less than its "operational capacity". On a typical day there, 560 inmates double-up (two sharing cells designed for one), according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Meanwhile, an investigation in 2010 by the Independent Monitoring Board, which examines prison welfare, found that toilets still don't exist in 2,000 cells across 10 prisons, meaning "slopping out" still persists – though not in Manchester.

Labour MP Paul Stinchcombe, talking in Parliament about the riot on the 10th anniversary of the Woolf Report, said: "Overcrowding is the core problem facing prisons. It has been described by the head of the Prison Service as a scourge, by Lord Woolf as a cancer and by Christopher Scott, the former president of the Prison Governors Association, as an obscenity." HM Prison Manchester celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2018. 

Noel Smith's book, The Alphabet of Crime (Penguin), is out later this year; Alan Lord's book, Life in Strangeways: from Riots to Redemption (John Blake) is out on 2 April

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