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Strangeways 1990: A Serious Disturbance

Review by John Bowden

>On 1 April 1990, the British prison system was shaken to its very foundations by an uprising of prisoners at Strangeways in Manchester; an uprising so prolonged and visible that it acted as a catalyst for wider prisoner unrest throughout the system and a focus for probably the most intense and far-reaching discussion and inquiry ever into the nature of the prison system in Britain.

Five years on much of the enlightened debate surrounding the causes of the Strangeways revolt, and virtually all of the recommendations to emerge from Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry into it, have now evaporated in a social and political climate of increased repression and the scapegoating of marginalised groups, including prisoners. Within five brief years the emphasis has radically changed from one favoring a genuine improvement in prison conditions and prisoners' rights to one favoring instead a total eradication of those rights and a return to almost medieval conditions of confinement. The ideological pendulum is now swinging dangerously to the far right on the question of prisons and the lessons of Strangeways are fading quickly.

The recent publication of Strangeways 1990: A Serious Disturbance by Nicki Jameson and Eric Allison is, therefore, a timely reminder of those lessons and, on this fifth anniversary of the revolt, a fitting tribute to all the prisoners at Strangeways who, by their magnificent collective action, blew the whistle on prison brutality in Britain and then suffered savagely as a consequence. Jameson and Allison have written an extremely well researched and powerfully analytical account of the revolt that contextualises the actions of the "rioters" in the hellish conditions and fabric of the prison system, as well as the social and political forces which determine the character of repressive prison regimes. Throughout the book the point is made that the actions of the Strangeways prisoners were a legitimate and absolutely justifiable reaction to the institutionalized brutality and maltreatment of the prison system.

This is very much a politically committed book, written from the perspective of the prisoners themselves; a book which bravely and unambiguously takes sides and gives voice to the voiceless, providing an extremely valuable testament to the historical struggle of the totally powerless against the omnipotently powerful.

Here also is a very gripping and absorbing human drama, a dynamic tale of resistance and heroism told with great compassion and empathy, and an uncompromising commitment to discovering and revealing the truth of what happened at Strangeways and why.

As with all potent displays of working class resistance, inside or outside prison, the state and a compliant media tried to drown the Strangeways revolt in a sea of disinformation and lies. The "ringleaders" were characterized as "animals" and "jail scum" etc. and their actions as an "explosion of evil" and an "orgy of violence". Layer upon layer of media and establishment lies were applied in an attempt to criminalise the Strangeways revolt and condemn its alleged ringleaders to additional years of imprisonment and victimization. The authors of Strangeways 1990 are therefore to be congratulated for writing a courageous and truthful book that dispels completely the official mythology that surrounds Strangeways and instead places the revolt in its true context as a legitimate struggle against intolerable state violence and repression.

Solidarity is a strong and enduring theme throughout this book and both authors write from a clear position of active commitment to the prison struggle, infusing their work with a vibrant and campaigning energy. Here is a book that seeks radical change in and a calling to account of an inhuman prison system, and by doing so provides prisoners with a potent weapon of liberation.

Strangeways 1990: A Serious Disturbance by Nicki Jameson and Erie Allison was published on 6 April 1995 by Larkin Publications, BCM Box 5909, London, WC1N 3XX, England (GB), telephone 0171 837-1688, fax 0171 251-3443, price £7.95 (sterling) plus £2 postage and packing. ISBN 0 905400 18 6. 192pp. Paperback.

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