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When society fails to act

8th April 2010

Twenty years ago this week, the worst prison unrest in recent British history occurred when over 1,000 prisoners took control of Strangeways Prison in Manchester, in protest at chronic overcrowding and cell conditions at the prison. In a 25-day “riot”, one prisoner and one prison officer lost their lives and protests and unrest broke out at several other prisons across England, Wales and Scotland. 

Lord Woolf was appointed to carry out an inquiry and found that overcrowding (Strangeways held over 1,600 prisoners at the time of the riot for a capacity of 1000) and inhumane cell conditions and slopping out had contributed to the unrest.  Ultimately, the rebuilding of the prison cost £55m, but it marked the beginning of an investment process that overhauled prison conditions and ended slopping out in England in 1996.

It’s worth looking back at just five of the recommendations of the Woolf report, recommendations that have generally been implemented in the UK, and using these recommendations to measure Irish prisons twenty years later:

  • A new Prison Rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners that is provided for in its certified normal level of accommodation, with provisions for Parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is to be a material departure from that rule.
    The Inspector of Prisons was so concerned at overcrowding in Mountjoy in Feb 2009 that he wrote directly to the Minister; the numbers held in Mountjoy have only risen in the time since.
    Moreover, the Inspector of Prisons, the Visiting Committees, and other monitoring agencies report directly to the Minister of Justice and not to the Oireachtas, which is problematic.
  • Provision of access to sanitation for all inmates by 1996 (achieved in England, though not in Scotland).
    One third of prisoners in Ireland still have no access to in-cell sanitation.
  • Division of prison establishments into small and more manageable and secure units. 
    Government is still insisting that the proposed super-prison at Thornton Hall will go ahead, despite strong economic and social arguments against penal expansionism.
  • A national system of Accredited Standards, with which, in time, each prison establishment would be required to comply.
    Although the Inspector of Prisons published standards for inspection in 2009, they have no statutory basis.
  • Improved standards of justice within prisons involving the giving of reasons to a prisoner for any decision which materially and adversely affects him; a grievance procedure and disciplinary proceedings which ensure that the Governor deals with most matters under his present powers; relieving Boards of Visitors of their adjudicatory role; and providing for final access to an independent Complaints Adjudicator.
    There is no independent complaints mechanism for people held in prisons in Ireland.

In the intervening years, much progress has been gained in Britain through the implementation of these recommendations, although the dramatic increase in prison population in more recent years has undermined some of this progress.  It was a disgrace for Britain that it took the tragic events at Strangeways to bring about this progress.

Reading through the recommendations from an Irish perspective, it is an even greater disgrace that none of these issues have been addressed in our prison system, despite the worrying increase in prison violence in recent years. There are pressing moral and legal arguments for addressing the chronic human rights problems of overcrowding, cell conditions and slopping out, and basic accountability of the prison system.  If this case is being ignored, Strangeways and the Woolf report provide a warning sign of what can happen when society fails to act.

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