It’s kind of mad to think that Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the Strangeways prison riots. Anyone aged 30 or over and from the North West of England will probably remember this very clearly – I know I certainly do. For 25 days in April 1990, the authorities lost control of Manchester’s iconic Victorian jail and inmates took to the roof to protest against poor conditions and abusive staff. Chronic overcrowding, a lack of sanitation in the cells, frequent moves from one prison to another and poor visitation rights were among their complaints. When it all kicked off there were 1,600 men sharing 970 single cells. A series of copycat protests followed in a number of other UK jails. At Strangeways, the numbers quickly dwindled of course and by the last day just five protestors were left.
I was 10 years old in 1990 and along with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, assorted terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and Margaret Thatcher’s resignation speech in 1991 – when my top junior class was actually summoned to the AV room to witness the glorious moment live on TV – Strangeways is one of my earliest memories of really being conscious of current affairs. The riot left the prison in chaos and cost tens of millions of pounds and several years to repair. But more importantly, the protest and the seminal Woolf inquiry which followed it are credited as being a turning point in penal history. Many of Lord Woolf’s recommendations were too radical for the Tory administration and subsequent New Labour government to stomach and the prison population stands far higher today. But conditions at Strangeways – now HMP Manchester – and other prisons are undeniably better than they were on April Fool’s Day two decades ago.