1989: The Risley prisoners' uprising

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In 1989 prisoners at Risley Remand Centre celebrated 1 May in style by taking over a wing of the notoriously squalid, brutal prison and spending three days on the roof. We remember the Risley uprising and analyse its legacy for prisoners' struggle in Britain.

Gris Ris
In 1988 the Chief Inspector of Prisons Stephen Tumim described Risley as 'barbarous and squalid', `appalling and totally unacceptable', `dirty and dilapidated'.

The late 1980s saw a massive increase in prison overcrowding, especially in local prisons and remand centres, some of which had received no refurbishment other than the occasional lick of paint for 100 years. Risley, however, was a modern facility, opened in 1965, to hold 608 prisoners - 514 men and 94 women. just over twenty years later it was holding 956 prisoners - 831 men and 125 women - and physical conditions were as bad as in the mouldering Victorian prisons.

Prisoners at Risley were in their cells for more than 20 hours a day; the food was revolting and unhygienically prepared and served; there had been three suicides in the space of five weeks yet none of the suicide prevention measures supposedly operational across the prison system were in place.

The revolt
On 1 May 1989 120 prisoners from D wing assembled in the exercise yard, planning to stage a symbolic sit-down protest to draw attention to the horrific conditions. However, a separate protest the night before on B wing had been put dawn by the 'MUFTI' squad* and it seemed unlikely that such a protest would be able to even begin before there was violent intervention. The D wing men therefore changed tactic and decided to occupy a landing inside the prison. Wadi Williams, describes the events which followed:

`With the MUFTI on the ground floor corridor rushing up the stairs we had a serious head-on confrontation. We were seriously concerned for our safety, given the squad's reputation for gross violence and brutality... We quickly fashioned a barricade and the struggle for control of the wing was on. We were obliged to confront the staves and shields of the MUFTI with whatever was to hand. This included pouring concentrated liquid soap down the stairs to stop them rushing up the stairwell; doors were taken off their hinges and used to barricade the main access area.... After 10-15 minutes we gained control of landing 5 and turned our attention to landing 6... [Then] there was a race between us and the MUFTI as to who would gain control of the flat roof connecting the wing... There then ensued a brief but fierce struggle, after which they retreated and we were able to establish our defensive line and take control of the main roof and effectively take control of D wing... the uprising was now in full swing!' (FRFI98 December 1990/January 1991**)

Fifty four protesters stayed on the roof of D wing for three days. They held up banners, gave clenched fist salutes to the media and supporters assembled below and shouted down demands for an inquiry into and improvements to conditions at Risley, and for no reprisals when they came down.

The level of political consciousness was high. The protesters emphasised their solidarity with one another and their refusal to be divided along racial lines, while prison officers taunted the white prisoners, shouting 'Throw the niggers off the roof' and 'How can you be led by niggers?' They made decisions by means of democratic mass assemblies and finally surrendered together in unity, having negotiated for solicitors to be present and photographs to be taken of them, in case they were beaten up later.

The trial
A year later, 21 men stood trial, charged with criminal damage and riot, a Public Order Act charge used for the first time in a prison context. They faced up to ten years imprisonment on each count but withstood pressure to plead guilty in return for lesser sentences. Instead, they presented a case that conditions at Risley were so bad that their detention there amounted to false imprisonment, and that they were therefore entitled to use 'reasonable force' to mount their protest.

The judge was totally against the prisoners and directed the jury to ignore such arguments. The jury, however, was horrified by what it heard and acquitted all of them.

The state learns some lessons
The verdict was a public humiliation for the government, and one it would take major steps to avoid in future. Following the massive revolt which spread from Strangeways prison through the entire system the following April, criminal charges were deliberately phrased so as to render a political defence virtually impossible.

Risley was in many senses a precursor to Strangeways. Both protests exposed appalling physical conditions and the brutality of prison officers Both destroyed the myth that only long-term prisoners would protest. Both wrecked large section; of the prisons, forcing closure and refurbishment. Together they resulted in enormous changes throughout the prison system.

In other ways it was very different from Strangeways: far tighter, far more studied, perhaps easier for the state to contain physically but harder for it to deal with politically. The new law of Prison Mutiny, introduced in 1991 and most recently used against Full Sutton prisoners, was as much a response to the deliberate political protest at Risley, as to the largely spontaneous uprising at Strangeways.

Following the protests of 1989-90, the government introduced a number of changes. It improved physical prison conditions and for a few years concentrated on bringing in positive measures, such as an end to slopping-out more visits, less censorship, greater access to telephones. All of these were an unequivocal victory for everyone who had protested at Risley, Strangeways and elsewhere. But the victory was short-lived and many of the improvements were soon tied into the new 'Incentives and Earned Privileges' scheme, which was designed to divide the prison population against one another and render the solidarity of Risley so much harder to create.

Still grisly
After the uprising, Risley was rebuilt and the men's remand centre converted to take category C prisoners serving medium length sentences. Conditions in the refurbished blocks were much improved and even staff attitudes became less aggressive. However, by 1993 the increasing remand population in the northwest was once again being warehoused at Risley. Unconvicted prisoners were allocated to the 'TAC' (temporary allocation centre), which was set up in the old, condemned, unrefurbished wings of the prison.

And throughout all the twists and turns in the men's prison, the `women's side' of Risley remained unremittingly dire: overcrowded, uncaring, unsanitary. When the new Chief Inspector visited in 1996, women told him that the previous weekend they had been locked up the whole time, except for meals; there had been no access to the phone; there were no bathing facilities at reception and nits and fleas were being spread; staff treated the women like children and assumed all prisoners were drug-takers but there was no assistance for those who were; male officers were looking into women's cells; food was disgusting; prisoners were being arbitrarily transferred across the country; visitors had to wait long periods of time to get in.

The spirit of Risley
The statement of the Risley 54, written by Wadi Williams, was stolen from him prior to the trial by an employee of the education department at Hull prison, who handed it to the police. The prosecution produced it in court as evidence that the defendants were an organised revolutionary conspiracy. This backfired and the article only served to strengthen the prisoners case that they were acting in self-defence against a barbaric system.

Today, the prison population is at its highest ever but the level of resistance is low. The state has learned many lessons from Risley and Strangeways and its divide-and-rule tactics are keeping the lid on the system - for now. But the sheer numbers being herded into prison will eventually ensure the rebirth of the fightback. The state's greatest fear is something which the Risley protesters celebrated: `the awesome creative strength ...released in people whom society had for so long dismissed as irrelevant'. Wadi's stolen article ends: Finally, the Risley Uprising also demonstrated that the human spirit remains unbroken! Unbowed! and untwisted! Salud!

Nicki Jameson

Footnotes
* Minimum Use of Force Tactical Intervention - Prison Officers' equivalent of riot police, later replaced by 'Control and Restraint teams'
** FRFI is Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism where this article originates. A very mundane socialist paper but with good prison news.

Picture by Ghislaine Howard, ghislainehoward.com/risley