Sunday, October 14, 2012

Crying Out Loud by Cath Staincliffe (Severn House Publishers 2011)

Strangeways is just north of the city centre, a couple of minutes’ drive from Victoria train station. The tall watchtower is Italianate in style, a landmark I could see as I drove closer. It’s a familiar feature of the city skyline. The building is Victorian Gothic – red and cream brick, and the main entrance boasts two rounded towers and steeply pitched roofs. The prison was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the same man who had done Manchester’s town hall. Strangeways is a panopticon design: the wings run off from the central vantage point – like spokes from a wheel.

They don’t actually call it Strangeways any more; it was renamed HMP Manchester in the wake of the riots that destroyed most of the original buildings. The worst riots in the history of the penal system. On April Fool’s Day, 1990 it all kicked off. A group of prisoners had decided to accelerate their protest against inhuman conditions: the rotten food, men held three to a cell (cells twelve foot by eight and built for one), the degrading business of slopping out, the lack of visits, of free association, the racism and brutality of many guards. The ringleader, Paul Taylor, spoke after Sunday morning’s chapel service and when guards intervened, the prisoners got hold of some keys. Taylor escorted the chaplain to safety and then declared it was time for some free association. It lasted for twenty-five days. The leaders of the riot spent much of the time up on the high rooftops, communicating with the press and waving clenched fists for the photographers on board the helicopters swooping above them. Iconic images.

I remember the sense of dread and panic as the early reports came in: stories of prisoners being torn apart, of twenty dead, of people burnt alive, of hundreds of inmates breaking into the segregation unit where the paedophiles and informers were held, hauling them into kangaroo courts where summary justice was doled out, victims castrated and dismembered in orgies of operatic violence. The men on the roof had hung out a home-made banner: a sheet with the words No Dead daubed on it. Among the clamour of moral outrage and lurid speculation one or two more measured accounts were heard; the local journalists built up a rapport with the protesters and made every effort to give an accurate account of events. There was great sympathy for the prisoners’ cause in the city and beyond. And the eventual truth was that two men had died. Both in hospital, not in the prison: a prison warder who had suffered a heart attack and a man on remand for sex offences who had been beaten. No one ever stood trial in either case. The prison was effectively destroyed and when it was rebuilt along with the new name there was a change in conditions.