Inside the Sex Offender Prison, Radio 4. Strangeways: Britain’s Toughest Prison Riots, BBC 2

strangeways prison riot

Rex Bloomstein visits HMP Wharton in Nottinghamshire, the largest sex offender prison in Europe.  841 men range in age from 21 to 91 (93 was the oldest inmate). They have committed a variety of offences from rape to downloading child porn. The average cost for each prisoner is £27 000 per annum. What is unusual about HMP Wharton is the mix of social classes.  Convicted offenders range from working class to middle-class policemen, doctors, vicars and more upper class members of the legal profession. HMP Wharton caters for all, but their rehabilitation programmes are oversubscribed. One prisoner, for example, complained that he’d waited four-and-a-half years to get on one of the courses, but he kept being put back because those prisoners nearing the end of their tariff, and due for release, were fast tracked in front of him. As you’d expect official figures for rehabilitation of prisoners that have went through HMP Wharton’s programmes is six percent in comparison to other prisons with fifty per cent recidivist rates. Call me cynical, but I don’t think you’re comparing like with like. You’d probably find a similar strike rate for ex-murderers.  That’s the whole problem sex offenders are special category and not just in prison.

Twenty five years on I still have no sympathy for the prisoner in Strangeways that had raped his six-year old daughter and was severely beaten by other prisoners and flung from a roof. None. Other paedophiles suffered similar abuse. For 25 days starting 1st April 1990 almost 1700 prisoners gained control of the Manchester prison leaving two dead (they died of heart attacks induced by stress rather than from physical assault that such statistics seem to indicate) and 194 injured. The damage to the prison was extensive. A prison officers said he wept when he saw it. The prison chaplain Reverend Proctor described a darkness within the prison. And the prison governor described the vandalism as ‘evil’.   Three hundred prisoners involved in the initial disturbance had met for service in the prison chapel. A prisoner described it as ‘payback time’.

One of the features of Strangeways, as a Victorian prison, was one set of master keys opened all the doors. When prisoners wrestled a set of keys from a guard they had access to all cells and passageways. Prisoners were locked up twenty-three hours a day. Shitting and peeing in a bucket and being let out of the cell later to empty urine and excremental waste, sloping out was a common experience. The prison had been designed to hold 900 and held almost 1700. Two or three prisoners shared a cell. Shat and peed in the same communal bucket.

Paul Taylor a lifer described being punched on the back of the head by a prison guard when he was shown to his cell. A body-builder he decided he wasn’t going to let them away with that. He was going to take control of the situation and attack before he was attacked. This got him sent down to a punishment wing without any bedding or furniture. A bare cell. For life.  He was one of the main players in the riot and received an extra ten years onto his tariff.

He helped plan the riot with another more idiosyncratic prisoner (read crazyhorse here, but he spoke lots of sense) Paul Hancox. Hancox was critical of the hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil, prison-officer code. Prison officers ran the prison in any way they saw fit. Good old-fashioned Victorian values meant cracking heads and getting the job done.

Later in the siege on day five of the twenty-five day protest, only 22 prisoners remained on the roofs of the prison. Mathew Perry who was serving time at Strangeway during the riot described the initial exhilaration of the first day, but then the conundrum ‘how to get off the roof’ (and not be flung off). On one side hardened prisoners and on the other prison officers that promised to give them the good kicking they deserved.  A deal was made and the young prisoners were allowed to leave. By day 25 only a hard core of eight prisoners remained. Strangeway riot taught us nothing. 71 out of 118 prisons in England and Wales are currently classified as overcrowded. Another riot. Another enquiry. More recommendation.