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25 years ago: ‘Walking through hell’ at Strangeways Prison Riot

25 years ago this week tensions at Strangeways prison boiled over and exploded into the longest prison riot in British penal history.

The images and scenes from this anarchic violence were broadcast around the world.

Incensed by their sqaulid living conditions, packed three men to a cell, the prisoners complained of frequent prison officer brutality, but it would soon turn from talking to violence.

It set in motion a chain of events which would culminate in 25 days of inmate protest – with prisoners taking hold of the prison and sitting out on the roof for television cameras and photographers to see.

On 1 April 1990 inmates took control of the prison chapel and the riot quickly spread.

The newspapers of the time were soon full of lurid stories stating that inmates had murdered convicted sex offenders and prison officers in an orgy of revenge.

I can recall that the Manchester Evening News front page read, “20 Dead” which must have been harrowing for people who had family members in there.

On 3 April the front page of the Daily Mirror read “Prison Mob Hang Cop”, and claimed a former policeman imprisoned at Strangeways for rape had been killed by prisoners. The newspaper was forced to publish a retraction admitting that “reliable police sources” had been mistaken, when it transpired that the man was actually alive and imprisoned in HMP Leeds.

We now look back at how the Strangeways riot was reported in the Salford Advertiser at the time.

A headline reading “Violence Backlash” was the first news published on April 5 1990 in which it stated that vandals had gone on the rampage smashing windows at Canon Hussey and Arthur Millward Court, also electricity cables were cut at Windsor house leaving the residents without power for several hours on Monday 2 April.

Tellingly enough, there were also anti Poll Tax slogans daubed on the walls of the flats which suggested the two may have be linked.

Councillor Joe Murphy said: “This is the work of outsiders, they have come in and terrorised the good people living here.”

He added that rumours that the vandals responsible could have marched up to Islington straight after the Strangeways riot could not be discounted.

One week later the Salford Advertiser led with a story that read “We saw them Murdered”.

This story was the account of Salford solicitor Mary Monson who said that two of her 18-year-old clients, who were remand prisoners, had to literally fight their way out of the prison and were now “shell-shocked” by what they saw in there.

“One told of a man who was thrown over a landing and fell five storeys, said Miss Morson.

“He hit each one on the way down before being set upon as he lay on the ground.

“The other claimed to me that he had seen six bodies which he presumed were dead.”

The following week we were told the story of an 18-year-old Salford man who had written a four page letter to his mother describing what he had allegedly seen.

“It was like walking through hell in there that day.

“It was worse than any film that I had seen, every time that I close my eyes I can see the bodies”

He then went on to say that he had seen “beasts” – a name for sex offenders – beaten to death with hammers then hung off the landings. He claimed another prisoner had chosen to hang himself rather than face the avenging mob.

He continued to tell of the agony of inmates who had overdosed from drugs stolen from the prison pharmacy that were dying on the floor and nobody could help them.

The siege went on until April 25 and actually became a bizarre tourist attraction with entreprenuers selling Strangeways Riots t-shirts to the crowd outside.

To many people watching it seemed detached from reality, the inmates had rigged up a sound system and were dancing on the roofs in what seemed like a grotesque rave, others flew banners protesting their innocence whilst others seemed intent upon doing as much damage to the prison as they possibly could.

In my opinion I think that many of the younger more impressionable prisoners got carried away with the excitement of the riot, joining in to throwing roof slates at the police and fire service on scene.

After a few days the novelty wore off and they were glad to come down, while a hardcore bunch of prisoners including Paul Taylor would stick it out until the bitter end.

Eventually the prisoners did come down from the roof but they had managed to get their point across to the media that they were being treated like animals and also hung out banners saying, “None Dead” to contradict the newspaper reports of mass murders in the prison.

The truth slowly did filter out about the so-called mass murders of sex offenders: just one prisoner died from his injuries in hospital and one prison officer would die from a heart attack.

In total 147 prison officers and 47 prisoners were injured, much of the prison was damaged or destroyed with the cost of repairs coming to £90 million.

The only positve outcome of the riot was the Lord Woolf Report in which he concluded that conditions in the prison had been intolerable, and recommended major reform of the prison system.

Image: Scan from Strangeways 1990: A serious disturbance, original photo by Ged Murray

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SalfordOnline.com's Local History Editor and Senior Reporter.