Kicking Off … Why Prison Riots Happen

Alex Cavendish writing @ Prison UK: An Insider's View teases out the reasons behind prions riots.

In the aftermath of Friday’s events at HMP Birmingham I wanted to share a few thoughts about prison riots and why they occur. The main reason for the delay has been the fact that I’ve spent so much time explaining many of the same things to journalists who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

HMP Birmingham: 'The Green'
In writing this post, I think it is important to make a distinction between prisoners who protest about poor conditions or mistreatment by refusing to return to their cells or by organising sit-downs or by going on the wire netting that is stretched between landings and those who riot with the intent of destroying the fabric of the prison or else attack staff or fellow inmates. The events in Birmingham on 16 December were, by any measure, a major riot. Had the rioters managed to reach the prison roof, as some tried, then it might have gone on far longer than 12 hours. Mercifully there were very few injuries and only one prisoner required hospital treatment. Staff on the wing could have been taken hostage. That they weren’t may also say something about the aims of the rioters.

Although I’ve previously blogged about the weasel words that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) uses to describe riots in our prisons – ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents of concerted indiscipline’ (see blog post) – mass disorder on the scale seen at HMP Birmingham has actually been fairly rare, at least until recently. However, when they do happen, there is often a very considerable cost, both financial and human. Early estimates of repairing the damage to the fabric and security systems at Winson Green are already running into the millions of pounds for embattled G4S which holds the contract to run the prison.

Cold showers & riots?
Predictably, some sections of the media – especially the red top tabloids – have been peddling the misleading narrative that prisoners at The Green (as it is widely known in prison circles) went on the rampage because the showers were cold or due to a failure of the in-cell TV system. Neither claim is factually true as an explanation, although such issues can easily play a role in lighting the spark that sets off the powder keg. However, the mass media does have a tendency to try to attribute serious prison problems to seemingly minor or even silly causes – such as the death of an inmate’s pet hamster.

In reality, prison riots usually occur in very troubled prisons that have an extended history of poor management, as well as inmate discontent and frustration. It is rare that one single incident or decision by a governor leads directly to an explosion of rage by prisoners. There is almost always a whole series of issues and complaints that have gone unaddressed for weeks or even months.

There has been widespread speculation that the riot at HMP Birmingham was solely due to staff shortages. Having too few officers on wings definitely doesn’t help to diffuse tensions. If prisoners’ complaints and written applications are being ignored or it takes staff weeks or months to answer, then inevitably frustrations and a sense of grievance can flourish unchecked. When angry men feel that they are being ignored, some come to believe that only by smashing up the environment around them will their voices finally get heard. I think it is safe to say that the whole country is now aware of the situation.

Not such a warm welcome?
Of course, leaving prisoners locked up on their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – due to staff shortages or lack of activities – can also play a major role in fuelling tensions. Some of the specific complaints made about the daily regime at Winson Green include the regular cancellation of exercise periods and access to the gym. Perhaps small issues in themselves, but they do add up over many weeks and months.

Very similar grievances sparked off the riot at HMP High Down back in 2011 when protesters described themselves as being ‘banged up like kippers’. When eleven of these prisoners were charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and went on trial in 2014 with the prospect of an additional ten years on top of their sentences, the jury heard evidence from the governor of the appalling conditions at the prison and duly voted unanimously to acquit them all (see blog post). The verdict was a very serious humiliation for the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. This case should be an important lesson for his successor to bear in mind as she continues to threaten dire retribution against the Birmingham prisoners.

In many of my recent media interviews I have also tried to draw attention to the high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners, much of which goes untreated and unaddressed in our dysfunctional prisons. Long days of cellular confinement tend to seriously exacerbate mental health problems as does a lack of opportunities for productive activity and association with others.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss' statement
HMP Birmingham has a troubled recent history. Just reading recent reports prepared by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and other official bodies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) highlights many concerns over how the prison was functioning in the months running up to the latest incident (see the IMB report here). Questions also remain unanswered about why the MoJ and its ministers – Secretary of State Liz Truss and Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah – failed to react to the IMB report on HMP Birmingham delivered a few months earlier and at least ensure some urgent remedial action was instituted. In the event, it seems that neither did anything at all - a state of affairs that appears to have troubled even some Conservative back benchers.

The problems identified at The Green have now become common across much of the prison estate. Easily availability of drugs of all kind, particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS), certainly plays a role in fuelling violence between prisoners, as well as unpredictable behaviour from some of those who use ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. However, my own view is that the sheer poverty of daily existence at The Green and the frustrations of what sounds like one long lockdown probably played at least as great a role in the recent trouble as drugs did.

HMP Birmingham - aerial view
Even at the best of times, Cat-B local prisons (usually grim Victorian red brick piles in major cities) are highly volatile places. They receive prisoners straight from court – both on remand and convicted – as well as people on recall for breaching their licence conditions. Many of these men are still in the grip of addictions or living with serious mental health crises. Even those using prescribed medications for their medical conditions can find themselves deprived of these for days or weeks until they have been assessed by the prison healthcare team. It also often takes far too long to identify those newly arrived inmates who require a place in a secure hospital.

Some prisoners in a Cat-B local will be merely passing through or serving ridiculously short sentences of a few weeks or even days, during which nothing meaningful in terms of support for their drug habits or mental health conditions will be on offer. Others coming in from the dock will just be starting to come to terms with very long sentences that stretch out before them like a train track into a very dark tunnel. Many will be scared or disorientated and a lot will be very angry, at themselves and at other people. Some will self-harm and others will commit suicide. None of this makes for a very safe or predictable environment and those are just some of the reasons that Cat-B locals tend to be so troubled and potentially explosive.

HMP Ford in flames (Dec 2010)
In contrast, Cat-B and Cat-C ‘trainers’ (prisons that cater for more settled prisoners at different stages of their sentences) often appear to be much calmer and less prone to mass outbursts of violence or destruction. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. Even an open prison like HMP Ford can succumb to serious trouble, as at New Year’s Eve in 2010 when large parts of the prison went up in smoke when some prisoners rioted over alcohol testing. It’s worth noting, however, that on that occasion other prisoners tried to stop the rioters or at least tried to extinguish the fires.

And this is an important point. During most prison riots there is almost always a significant number of prisoners who aren’t involved. Some try to stay safe in their cells or hide from others who are intent on doing as much damage as possible. In fact, it can be a very dangerous environment on wings for those who don’t want to get involved. They run the risk of being branded collaborators or ‘screwboys’ who aren’t loyal to their fellow inmates.

There have also been other, much more serious prison riots than at Birmingham since the infamous episode at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways back in 1990. As recently as April 2009 HMP Ashwell in Rutland suffered such a catastrophic disturbance that whole wings had to be abandoned and the costs involved were so astronomical that they were never rebuilt. The whole complex eventually had to be abandoned and it is currently used as a film set for prison movies.

Prison riots can be terrifying
How the prison authorities behave in the aftermath of a serious riot is also very important. Damage to the security systems at The Green and the fact that an officer’s keys were seized by prisoners have led to full scale lockdown for nearly a week, even for those prisoners who were on other wings where there was no trouble.

Reports are coming out of these prisoners not being allowed out of their cells, of poor food, of delayed medication, of being denied access to payphones to call their families and of mail not being handed over. This is starting to appear to be a form of ‘collective punishment’ on those who weren’t involved in Friday’s riot and risks fuelling tensions among other inmates. Insiders are now pointing to signs of recent trouble among prisoners on C-wing, one of those areas unaffected by the rioting.

So far, over 500 of The Green’s 1,450 inmates have been transferred to other prisons. Some of these men have been literally carried onto secure vans, most have left without any of their personal possessions and may be taken to jails many miles away from their families just before Christmas. A few have even smeared themselves with human excrement (a ‘dirty protest’) in a bid to halt, or at least delay, their transfer. Upon arrival at other establishments – such as HMP Hull and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire) – there have been reports of continuing resistance and further minor disturbances. Almost all of these receiving prisons are themselves reported to be on a knife-edge and there is a very real risk that G4S is merely exporting its disgruntled prison population across the country, with the result that more trouble could follow.

It is a truth well known to both prisoners and staff alike that most prisons can only be run with the tacit cooperation and involvement of a majority of the inmates. Prisoners do many of the essential day-to-day tasks required for the running of any jail - from cleaning and working in the laundry to preparing and serving meals - and on a wing with just two or three officers there is no way to compel the obedience of 150 or more adult men. However, this truce can be fragile and the longer a lockdown is imposed on prisoners who didn’t participate in the riot, the more likely that they will withdraw their cooperation. G4S is currently playing with fire at The Green.

'Sweat boxes' waiting for transfers

I wish I could propose a quick fix for the underlying causes of riots like we have seen recently at HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November), HMP Moorland (November) and now at HMP Birmingham, but I really can’t. This prison crisis has been years in the making and no government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has had the courage to address the fact that the prison population in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1993 when it stood at around 40,000. Of course, budget cuts of £900m since 2011 and a cut in the number of frontline prison staff by 2,500 since 2013 alone have made a desperate situation far worse.

Stepping up the recruitment of more prison staff is a start, but in reality retention of new officers is extremely poor and, in any case, most of the 2,500 new frontline staff promised by Ms Truss will not be recruited, trained and deployed until much later in 2017 or even 2018. Meanwhile, the crisis is set to continue.

The most obvious solutions, such as cutting the prison population by reducing significantly the number of unconvicted prisoners held on remand (between 10,000-12,000 at any time), by speeding up the release of prisoners serving the now abolished Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) who are years over their minimum tariff and by reforming sentencing in our courts to eliminate the use of custody for non-payment of fines, as well as most petty or non-violent offences, do not seem to appeal to our political leaders. Neither do proposals to create secure care facilities for elderly or severe disabled offenders, both groups that place a severe strain on staff resources and prison healthcare, as well as on local hospitals.

All prisoners are categorised by dynamic risk. Arguably, those who are considered to present a ‘low risk’ of reoffending, shouldn’t even be held in custody. Keeping most short-sentenced, non-violent prisoners accommodated in Cat-D open prisons is also probably a waste of taxpayers’ money. Better to focus scarce resources on the containment and rehabilitation of those who actually do pose a continuing risk to the public. However, in order to push such reforms through, real political leadership will be required, especially at the MoJ. Unfortunately both Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah are lightweights, far out of their depth. They need to go. Now.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

19 comments to ''Kicking Off … Why Prison Riots Happen "

  1. It's always the same: the typical, brutal, situation by the British/Prod conspiracy inflicted against innocent, political, Irish Republican prisoners with nothing to remedy it but foolish talk. War is mandatory. Up the RAs! This is the solution. Defend your country.

    Ronnie Austin

  2. Ronnie

    here's an article on prison condition a little closer to home.

  3. Yet again Ronnie shows his incompetence and bigotry.

    These prisons are in England and have next to f*ck all to do with Ireland.

    Coming from a citizen of a nation guilty of the most horrendous Human Rights abuses with GITMO and Rendition may I suggest you mind your own f*cking business too?

  4. Steve R

    Did someone tazer your sensitivities there? That sounded like our jails are better than your jails ... just a tad. lol

  5. Henry, the point is Irish Republican, innocent men and women are incarcerated in dungeons and tortured unmercifully. That's the point.

    By the way, your profile does not say where you are from. Are you ashamed of it?
    Ronnie Austin

  6. Ronnie

    did you read the article by Lara Marlowe I linked to?
    The conditions that prisoners in Calfornia endure, twenty two and a half hours on lock up and a regime that conspires to remove any human contact whatsoever!!!!

    Though I read that article four years ago it still sticks in my mind.I really do believe you ought familiarise yourself with the penal conditions in your own country first.

    (I am an Irish passport holder and live in Connacht.)

  7. Ronnie

    Dungeons is a bit archaic -Crumlin Road Prision was a victorian era prison with appalling conditions but I would not liken it to a dungeon and I paid several visits to the punishment block to do solitary confinement. But ok dungeons it is. I also took a few punches/beatings but none to the point of 'unmercifully' -nothing like some beatings I heard about back in the 1970s. I have not heard of anyone in recent times being beaten to a pulp by the cops or screws and wonder where you are getting your information from?

  8. Henry, at least the prisoners in California don't have objects rammed up their rectums as the guards probe in a torturous way.

  9. I get some of the information from Irish newspapers.

    Why were you at the prisons? For some reason, you sweet talk the brutal system. They must have gotten to you.

  10. Larry,

    Re-reading his comments I actually wonder if he is a parody account. I may have posted in haste at the general sweeping tarring of everyone 'Brit/Prod' with being solely responsible for unjustified torture and incarceration of people.

    Surprised you didn't jump down his throat with US Human Rights abuses either! lol

  11. Steve R

    I was too caught up in the humour of you defending the wee 6 reputation on human rights and jail standards. I watch late night American crime shows and I don't mind telling you life without parole doesn't appeal over there in the USA. Never mind Gitmo. Though I see here tonight some clown who murdered two young girls way back in the USA and got life without parole has married a 'number' of times in jail and has kids... WTF? What sort of women are over there too?

  12. Larry,

    Yep, I stand corrected, he's a nutter. lol

  13. Larry,

    I wasn't defending the wee 6 on anything, i WAS getting fucked off with the yanks sweeping generalisation of blaming every 'Brit/Prod' for the actions of a few..

  14. It's blatantly obvious you talkers are satisfied with the British/Unionist conspiracy in the Six Counties. In the USA, we disallow foreign troops to parade on the streets in cahoots with the state police and a regime like Stormont. You sit back and accept what Unionist politicians, the RUC/PSNI, and Westminster allows you. Dream on.

  15. Steve R

    yous prods ARE to blame for everything! lol

    I met American troops at Franfurt airport shortly after Iraq was invaded and they were bragging how everyone loved the USA when they were sorting things out. Also an American couple on a flight from Philadelphia to Knoxville after 98 GFA who were expecting brownie points for bringing us peace at long last. Interfering where they have no clue what's going on.

    I see it's about 37 degrees down in Oz .... strewth !!

  16. There, there Ronnie. Go with the nice men into the padded cell were you belong.

    Don't forget to take your meds!

  17. Larry,

    lol, didn't ye know? I'm a proddy Atheist!

    Flip side to that is I met few Marines a few years back who just rotated back from Iraq, they were absolutely respectful to me and the wife and a credit to themselves. Couldn't get over how young they were. Not the young I have the issue with, their political masters sending them to die in pursuit of Oil is what gets my goat.

    37oC is nothing, in the Outback the locals tell me it's hit 55oC before, but they scale the temp back on the weather report so as not to scare tourists! I can hack the dry heat but when you get closer to the ocean the humidity just kills ye cobber!

  18. Steve R

    I met squaddies in Borneo and they insisted I go drinking with them. Not even a problem except from one Scot who was a Rangers fan. Even then it was only a wee bit of verbal. The young lads were decent lads. Although they refused to accept Sadam had no WMD's. They were desperate to see action after all that jungle training lol Wonder if they lost arms - legs or worse.

    Aye, that weather stinks, great here this end, high winds and driving rain, and it's IMF/Dole day so we must venture out.

  19. Larry,

    How I know I am getting older is that the cops all look about 12 year old. I got stopped here for what they call a 'booze-bus'which is just a VCP in which they get EVERY driver to take a breath test. The cop doing mine looked like he hadn't started shaving yet. Felt the urge to ask him 'Does yer mammy know your out pretending to be police officer?' but thought better of it!

    "Aye, that weather stinks, great here this end, high winds and driving rain, and it's IMF/Dole day so we must venture out."

    Oh, the humanity!


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