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02 April 2015

Strangeways 25 years on: achieving fairness and justice in our prisons

Twenty five years after the Strangeways riot began on 1 April 1990, chronic overcrowding driven by a near doubling of the prison population over the past two decades continues to undermine standards of decency in prisons and restrict opportunities for rehabilitation, according to a new report by the Prison Reform Trust.

Half of all men (49.7%) at HMP Manchester (Strangeways) are held two to a cell designed for one, a new Prison Reform Trust report reveals.1Ministry of Justice (2014) Prison and Probation Trusts performance statistics 2013/14: Prison performance digest 2013-14, London: Ministry of Justice

Almost one quarter (23.6%) of people held across the prison estate in England and Wales are in so-called “doubled accommodation”.2Ibid.

Twenty five years after the Strangeways riot began on 1 April 1990, chronic overcrowding driven by a near doubling of the prison population over the past two decades continues to undermine standards of decency in prisons and restrict opportunities for rehabilitation, the report says.

Half of people released from prison reoffend within one year of release; rising to 60% for those serving sentences of 12 months or less.

When the Strangeways riot began the prison population was 45,000; today it stands at 84,000.3Table A.1.2, Ministry of Justice (2014) Offender Management Statistics Prison Population 2014, London: Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Justice (2015) Prison Population Bulletin weekly 20 March 2015, London: Ministry of Justice England and Wales now has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, imprisoning 149 people for every 100,000.4International Centre for Prison Studies website, accessed on 20 March 2015, available at At the end of February 2015, 71 of the 118 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded.5Ministry of Justice (2015) Population Bulletin: February 2015, London: Ministry of Justice

Successive governments have poured taxpayers’ money into expensive prison building programmes while closing smaller prisons and opening vast prisons in order to meet the demands of a growing prison population.  More than four in 10 prisoners are now held in supersized jails of over 1,000 or more.6Ibid. HMP Manchester currently holds 1,114 men.

The Strangeways prison riot, which left two men dead and 194 injured, was one of the most serious in British penal history. The riot took place against the background of a prison system which was perceived by prisoners as increasingly arbitrary and unfair and lacking in basic standards of decency.

Lord Woolf’s inquiry into the causes of the disturbances constituted a wide-ranging examination of conditions in Britain’s prisons and represents the most important analysis of the penal system for the past 100 years.

Lord Woolf, who now chairs the Prison Reform Trust, will deliver a lecture on the 25th anniversary of the Strangeways riot on 1 April 2015 at the Inner Temple in London.

Lord Woolf’s12 main recommendations and 204 proposals on matters of detail set out an agenda for comprehensive reform of the prison system. These included an end to “slopping out”, whereby prisoners had to urinate and defecate in buckets in their cell; the appointment of a prisons ombudsman; and the introduction of telephones on landings so prisoners could keep in closer touch with their families.

Lord Woolf also called for an enforceable limit on overcrowding and the division of prisons into smaller and more manageable secure units of 50-70 places, with no establishment exceeding 400 places.

The report assesses progress made against Lord Woolf’s 12 main recommendations for a more fair and just prison system. It says that many of the factors which contributed to the unrest have resurfaced today. Although the Prison Service is better able today to ensure control and security, this has threatened to set back decades of painstaking progress it has made to improve treatment and conditions.

Over the past two years, independent prisons inspectorate reports and Ministry of Justice statistics reveal a marked increase in deaths in custody, a rising tide of violence and acts of concerted indiscipline, and falling rates of purposeful activity.

The justice committee, in its recent report into the current government’s approach to prison policy and planning, said that moves to cut costs in the prison system in England and Wales, as well as tougher prison regimes, had “made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”7Justice Committee (2015) Prisons: planning and policies, Ninth report of Session 2014-15, London: The Stationery Office

Measuring progress against Lord Woolf’s recommendations, the report reveals a prison service which has made heroic strides in some areas but disturbing lapses in others.

Although the official end to ‘slopping out’ was announced nearly 20 years ago, by the former prisons minister Ann Widdecombe, some establishments still suffer from a lack of in cell sanitation.

HM inspector of prisons 2013-14 annual report said: “We continued to find – and be critical of – ‘night sanitation’ systems in some prisons, such as Blundeston and Coldingley, where there were no in-cell toilets and prisoners used an electronic queuing system to access external toilets. These systems sometimes break down, leaving prisoners little option than to use buckets.”8HM chief inspector of prisons (2014) HM chief inspector of prisons for England & Wales Annual Report 2013-14, London: The Stationery Office

In 2010 there were 1,973 prison places without in-cell sanitation or open access to toilet facilities.9Hansard HC, 7 December 2010, c204W

The report says that better arrangements for monitoring prison performance could be improved by more robust and comprehensive standards and a truly independent prisons inspectorate accountable directly to Parliament.

It says the prisons and probation ombudsman should be placed on a statutory footing to ensure the vital role it plays in addressing the grievances of people in prison is given proper protection and authority in law.

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Chronic overcrowding driven by a near doubling of the prison population over the past two decades undermines standards of decency in prisons and restricts opportunities for rehabilitation. The past two years have seen a worrying deterioration in safety. This has set back painstaking progress made by the prison service since Lord’s Woolf report to improve treatment and conditions.

“An incoming administration in May 2015 must not accept this decline in prison standards as the new normal. Restoring prison to its proper function as an important place of last resort in a balanced justice system is the basis on which to create a just, fair and effective penal system.”