1980s >> 1982 >> no-930-february-1982

H. M. Dustbins: Prisoners’ Riots

“Every day a fresh humiliation.” — one prisoner’s description of life in the long term wing at Wormwood Scrubs.

Whenever there is a Tory government, and the jobs are being dished out, one who is always willing to sacrifice himself in the more harrowing of ministries is Willie Whitelaw. Perhaps this is because he is such an amiable man. Or perhaps he is convinced that being a rich aristocrat is a burden he bears more in our interests than his own. Whatever the reason, his career has been studded with crises as regular as cairns on the route up a mountain. Recently, for example, there have been the city riots and — one of his persistent concerns — the turbulent state of British prisons.

According to Whitelaw, the essence of the problem in prisons is overcrowding the relentless stuffing of men (it only affects male prisoners at present) into large, gloomy, decaying Victorian buildings which were designed to contain several hundred less than are being forced into them. This is no recent problem; six years ago (The Times 4/8/75) Roy Jenkins, who was then Home Secretary, said that it would “approach the intolerable” if the prison population reached 42,000. It now hovers around 44,000 and, as the courts do not seem eager to heed Whitelaw’s regular pleas to impose prison sentences more sparingly, is unlikely to fall in the near future.

There has been no lack of effort from the legislators, to reform the problem away. The Criminal Justice Act 1967 introduced suspended sentences and even made them mandatory in many cases when the defendant would otherwise have been locked up straight away. Another Act in 1972 set up the Community Service scheme, supposedly as an alternative to imprisonment. But the numbers behind bars has continued to rise; now Whitelaw is suggesting more reforms, heedless of the fact that so many have already failed.

Overcrowding means that life for thousands of prisoners is near to intolerable. Hundreds are confined three to a cell, measuring 13ft. by 7ft., designed to hold only one. There they may well stay behind the locked door, for up to 23 hours a day. They spend their time reading, listening to the radio, sleeping. Sometimes they discuss, with a garnish of fantasy, what they did to be sent to prison. There is, needless to say, no running water or lavatory in the cell. For these men the first task each morning is slopping out, when chamber pots used for the past twelve hours or so are emptied into a single disposal point which gurglingly accepts the intestinal waste products of about one hundred bodies. The smell, as prisoners like to inform, has to be experienced — it can’t be imagined. This appetite-sharpening start to the day is followed by breakfast; in very few prisons do the inmates concede that the food is edible, let alone appetising.

Not only the prisoners struggle with such exigencies. One wrote to the Guardian (11/12/81) from Wandsworth that in that grim pile the working conditions of the officers “would try the patience of a Buddhist monk’’. The governors of Strangeways and Wormwood Scrubs have recently publicised their anger in the press — a dangerously unusual act in a profession normally disciplined into reticence. Wormwood Scrubs, a place under unique tensions, was described by its governor as a “penal dustbin” made up of “overcrowded cattle pens”.

It is assumed from this that British prisons are likely to erupt into riot. There are dire warnings of ‘another Attica’ unless something is done to ease the overcrowding. But this sounds rather like the government dodging the issue in advance. Overcrowding is usually confined to local prisons where men are held on remand or are received straight from court after sentence, to be held before they are sent on to what is called — optimistically — a ‘training’ prison.

There have been riots in recent years but these have happened in those very ‘training’ prisons where there was no overcrowding — Parkhurst, Albany, Gartree, Hull. (The disturbance at Wormwood Scrubs in August 1979 was in the long term ‘D’ Wing, which was not overcrowded. In any case that was a riot by prison officers rather than by prisoners.) A modern prison like Albany has no slopping out; the prisoners can get out of their cell whenever they like and are not normally locked up for excessively long periods. In fact such prisons have physical conditions better than those awaiting a lot of the prisoners when they are let out.

So why is there fear of fresh trouble within those walls? The moment a convict walks through the prison gate, the pressures of the place on him are as palpable as the smell. A massive readjustment is needed, to survive within the rules and the customs on which the place is run. “Few sounds can be more heart stopping than the noise made by the closing of a cell door . . . . With the closing of the door, the prisoner knows that he has ceased to be a father, a brother, a husband or a son; from now on he is — a prisoner” recalled one man. (Ron Phillips, Race Today, June 1974).

Being a prisoner means that all sorts of decisions about you — whether you actually did what the screw says you did, what job you should do in the prison, should you be released early on parole — are taken without reference to you. “The interests of the individuals have to be sacrificed continually to the interests of the institution” was how the governor of Wormwood Scrubs despairingly expressed it. One result is that the customary standards of ‘justice’ do not apply in a place which is supposed to teach its inmates to respect those very standards.

Another factor is the growing militancy of prison officers, to the point when many prisoners are convinced that it is the officers, and not the governor or the Home Office, who decide how a prison is run. This militancy is a significant change for the prison service and has a lot to do with current economic conditions. At one time the prison service was something of a refuge for the ex-regular servicemen who found civilian life difficult, without the reassurance they gained from the military routine and structure. These officers with their guardsman’s peaked caps and their burnished boots, were a walking nostalgia. Now the service is often a refuge from redundancy and the inflow of recruits from industry has meant that a para-military discipline has been undermined by a trade union militancy. It is common now to see long hair underneath the warders’ caps, much to the disgust of the old time screws.

Militant prison officers may refuse — as they recently did at Strangeways – to receive any more prisoners; they can refuse to send them to court, or to work the hours needed for prisoners to go to evening classes or to week-end sport. These actions make life harder for the prisoners. Under the tensions of prison, it needs only one incident — a particular example of repression or brutality by the officers, an abrupt withdrawal of ‘privileges’, some specially bad food — to spark off a protest which can explode into a riot.

When that happens the official pretence that prisons are humane institutions which concentrate on caring for, and ‘reforming’, their inmates is torn away to reveal the truth that they are more akin to a battleground. On one side are the staff who like to think they represent ‘society’, which actually means the capitalist precept that one class holds the position to exploit the other, who must accept their degraded status. The prisoners are ‘offenders’ — they have breached that precept, even if they wouldn’t see it that way.


Many of them are obsessed with achieving the symbols of privilege — a gleaming fast car, glamorous women, a sumptuous home. If they had the income of a company chairman they wouldn’t offend but the real limit of their ambition is a typical working class wage, so they take refuge in fantasy. Perhaps their big difficulty is an inability to draw the sort of distinctions which capitalism demands of them — to appreciate, for example, that violence is permissible from a member of the SAS but not from a robber. The courts are part of the machinery to ensure that those distinctions are drawn and to punish anyone who fails to do so. In the end the most lenient of judges or magistrates will conclude that the only way of ‘disposing’ (a term often used in court) of someone is to send them to prison.


This is another example of the characteristic of capitalism, that it attempts to solve a problem by intensifying it. There is no evidence that prisons diminish crime; in many ways they are microcosms of society outside the walls — its jungle laws, its violence and cynicism. The highest aim of the entire penal system — including the reformers — is that members of the working class should emerge from a sentence prepared to accept a life of wage servitude. It is called rehabilitation and in the unreal world of prison it is in all ways the most savage fantasy of them all.