I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot. Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof. And they used to wave back to us. We thought we were *it*. Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us. The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us. I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.
The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time. The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison. A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top. We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees. Capital city? Stuff that. Manchester ruled!
We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that. It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?
And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool. Two people died. Scores of others were injured. £55 million worth of damage was done. The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered. There was nothing cool about it. It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup. And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us. But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.
I’m doing that again now, aren’t I? Making it all about me and my world. Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …
I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event. At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.
Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news. I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.
In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot. Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it. Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years. Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.
Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys. The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out. And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting. Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified. Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.
And that’s what we remember. The prisoners on the roof. We had no idea what was going on inside the building. But all sorts of reports were coming out. There was talk of massacres. Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds. A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners. And the authorities were going mad about this. The rioters had everyone’s attention. Everyone was listening to every word they said.
I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about. Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job. It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”. Can you imagine if that’d happened? Don’t even go there! Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot. And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on. Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military. The editor of the Manchester Evening News.
So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence. And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege. A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof. And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down. So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in. Bangers. Embedded in potatoes. It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance. And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.
Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video. They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering. Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.
Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt. It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots. Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”. And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.
Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”. It was one of the biggest national events of its time. And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus. Strange (pun intended). Very strange indeed. Thanks to Channel 4 for this. I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.