1990s >> 1990 >> no-1030-june-1990

Strange ways

Was the Strangeways Riot the work of the Devil? According to the prison governor, Brendan O’Friel, there is a very simple explanation: the riot was “something of a battle between good and evil” (The Observer, 6 May). The cause for this battle had to do, it seems, with the alleged success last year of a Christian mission within the prison. Later on, during the protest, the god-fearing Governor “became increasingly alarmed by the signs that something was going to happen on Good Friday. The omens were pretty bad. Good Friday was also the thirteenth, and we were getting some signals from the roof that sounded pretty ominous”.

As an explanation for the riot, this is absolute moonshine. O’Friel claims that the “success” of the 1989 Christian mission led to a riot. But was this mission a success? Out of 1600 prisoners (some very distressed, possibly suicidal), only 200 made “a commitment to Christ”, This is only 1 in 8: the majority rejected the message. To claim this as a success is as silly as Kenneth Baker’s attempt to claim the result of the local council elections as a massive Tory victory. Another improbability about this “success of the mission” theory is the timescale. Why did the “forces of evil” wait so many months before mounting this alleged counter-offensive? Then there’s the Governor’s view of what happened on Friday 13th—Good Friday. As a result of his forebodings, he enlisted the prayerful support of his fellow-believers. Down on their knees they went.

History relates that nothing very dreadful happened that day. Two more of the prisoners surrendered and the siege continued as before, without any “diabolical” incidents. This, to the devout Governor, was evidence of the success of “the spiritual outpourings . . .  (of) the Christian community”. In other words, bending the ear of the Almighty produces better results than appeals to the Home Office for reinforcements.

It is characteristic of true believers that they claim events as supporting their beliefs whatever the outcome. In this case, if, as he predicted, a “holocaust” had happened. that would have supported his belief in the activity of these supposed “forces of evil”.

This was a naive attempt by Governor O’Friel to persuade the outside world that there were no commonsense, material circumstances which could be expected to have triggered this and other jail protests. He would have us believe that this riot had more to do with the saving of souls than with slopping out. He apparently said nothing in his press conference of the conditions which the prisoners had to put up with in the jail: of the unhygienic and inhuman overcrowding in claustrophobic conditions; of the understaffing, which renders ineffective any attempts to make conditions less unbearable; or of the righteous fervour which inspires Manchester’s god-fearing police and magistrates with a zealous determination that even those awaiting trial for motoring offences must be locked up.

One of the young rooftop protesters was a teenage boy on remand, waiting month after month for his trial for taking a car without consent and drunk-driving. The jails of this country are overcrowded because people like him are locked up in cells, waiting for months for their cases to be heard. Mounting frustration and exasperation may well have been one of the factors that contributed to the protest.

Strangeways—a good name for a system which treats live people like dead sardines.

Charmian Skelton