The riot brought into the public consciousness the level of brutality and barbarism inherent in the British penal system. People learned that prisoners in Strangeways, many on remand yet to be convicted of a crime, were being held three to a cell for 22 hours a day with no sanitation, one shower per week and one change of underwear. They learned that harassment and intimidation, threats and beatings were normal everyday occurrences and an accepted method of maintaining control.
The riot itself wasn’t unexpected as tensions had been steadily brewing for months previously. A week before two prisoners held a one day rooftop protest after being beaten in their cells. Later other prisoners decided to stage a sit-in protest over the systematic brutality of the prison officers. On Saturday 31st there was a limited protest in the chapel after the film showing. Prisoners returned to their cells only after assurances were given that their grievances would be listened to and improvements made. That evening a prisoner was held down by seven officers in front of everyone and injected with largactyl (a “liquid cosh”). It was this that triggered the riot in the chapel the following day.
Paul Taylor, who was later to become a leading figure in the protest and one of the most severely punished, remembers there was an explosion of rage in the chapel after the sermon as prisoners made their anger felt. Prison officers were ushered out, and Taylor took their keys unlocking the doors to cells letting other prisoners out. Others barricaded themselves in the chapel and gained access to the roof. All the prison staff evacuated the prison leaving the prisoners in full control of the five accommodation wings.
Of nearly 1,650 prisoners in the jail, up to 1,100 were involved on the first day. Over the course of that day 700 of those surrendered and were transferred, along with the 400 non-participants. After the initial frenzy of liberation where whole wings were ransacked, the remaining prisoners began to organise themselves; barricades were constructed, food was gathered and stored for easy access, sleeping arrangements made. News quickly spread and along with the media onslaught hundreds of people converged on the prison, including many friends and family of those locked up as well as ex-prisoners. The level of support outside the prison was to remain solid throughout the protest.
The rooftop protest began in earnest with concrete demands being issued which included improved visiting facilities, Category A prisoners to be allowed to wear their own clothes and be able to receive food parcels, along with longer exercise periods and an end to 23-hour-a-day lock-up. After 25 days where they kept the prison authorities at bay the last five prisoners who remained on the roof were finally lifted off by a cherry picker, defiant and saluting to the crowds below. What began as an act of desperation turned into a wave of defiance as prisoners responded to what was happening in Manchester with similar uprising in Hull, Durham, Wandsworth and other prison facilities across the country.
As a consequence nine men went on trial for the Strangeways protest charged with riot. The charge of murder (a prisoner died during the uprising although there were doubts cast as to the actual cause; despite him receiving a beating from other prisoners) was to be dropped. Another trial was held over the battle of e wing where 14 defendants were charged with various offences, including two who were previously acquitted from the first trial, their names added to the second trial as a form of retribution. Of all those convicted for their part in the Strangeways revolt, only one, Alan Lord, remains incarcerated.
After the total destruction of the prison during the protest Strangeways was rebuilt, refurbished at a cost of £55 million. But as one prisoner put it at the time: “The better conditions in here are not down to the prison department. But for the riot, we would still be in the same old jail banged up all day and slopping out … The rioters brought this about. They should have done it years ago but it took a riot to get them to do it”