Lessons from ‘Strangeways’



The prison system of Pakistan has been sliding deeper and deeper into crisis, because of corruption, overcrowding and lack of facilities for the inmates. The violence, suicide and self-harm have reached a level that no advance civilized society should tolerate. Squalor, drug abuse, poor access to education and work skills, and a failure to maintain the fabric of our jails, have led to the worst prison conditions ever seen across the history. No one is interested to correct the situation or least bothered to find the reasons that has led to the dreadful prison system we have today. Why is the experience so dehumanizing, debilitating, corrosive and infantilizing for the prisoners and society? Why are the re offending figures or the incidents of recidivism are so high? Why is there so much selfharm, violence, drug abuse and death we are experiencing in our prisons? Why the people in charge of such places never shown any compassion for the prisoners and for their families? Prisoners are considered as mean, stupid, scrote, gargoyles, gangsters and legions of dodgy breeds. It is quite evident that the people assigned the duty or being appointed to perform as in charge of people in captivity are not only cruel, indecent but they are ill-equipped to deal with the work they are supposed to perform.

Their entry level requirements, education and training to become a prison officer never been comprehensively
evaluated or questioned. Since long, you need to pass a medical test, a physical test, a bit of English language
and a knowledge of math qualify you to become a prison officer. We must consider the issues faced by the prisoners as they have rights as well. Besides, we have to improve the selection process and training quality of prison officers. Definitely, its not a rocket science, we could learn these lesson from other nations that how they had improved their prison system. If we intend to get few lessons as far as the prisons are concerned, we could
learn a bit of everything from lessons learned during the ‘Strangeways Riots’ in 1990. The ‘Strangeways Prison’ was opened in 1868 in UK. The Prison was known for its prominent ventilation tower and imposing design structured by the principles of the separate system. The prison inhabited only male adults having a maximum capacity of 1269 now-a-days. Accommodation is divided into nine wings in two radial blocks. Cells are a mixture of single and  double occupancy, all having in-cell power points and integral sanitation.
Education and vocational training are provided in the prison by the Manchester College. Courses offered
include information technology, ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), numeracy, industrial cleaning,
bricklaying, painting and decorating, plastering, textiles and laundry. The prison’s gym runs courses in physical
education and offers recreational sport and fitness programs. In April 1990, the prison experienced
a 25-day riots, 147 staff -members and 47 prisoners were injured, while one inmate and an officer lost their lives.
The riots resulted in the Woolf Inquiry. This report contains many lessons for the prison regimes across the world. The Lord Woolf Report concluded that conditions in the prison had been intolerable and recommended major reform of the prison system. The media and law enforcement practitioners described the report as a blueprint for the restoration of “decency and justice into jails where conditions had become intolerable”.
At the time of riots the Certified Normal Accommodation for ‘Strangeways Prison’, was 970. While the population of the prison had increased in the months before the riot, from 1,417 in January 1990 to a peak of 1,658 on
27 March. Consequently, on 1 April, the prison contained 1,647 prisoners – about 925 convicted adult prisoners, 500 remand prisoners and 210 convicted young offenders. Prisoners felt their complaints about conditions
were being ignored. Remand prisoners were only allowed out of their cells for 18 hours per week, and Category A prisoners were locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, and rarely left their cells except for “slopping out”, a one-hour exercise period each day or a weekly shower.
A five-month public inquiry was held into the disturbances at ‘Strangeways Prison’ and other prisons, beginning in Manchester on 11 June 1990. In addition to the public inquiry, Lord Woolf and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of
Prisons, Stephen Tumim, also sent letters to every prisoner and prison officer in the country. Some 1,300 prisoners and 430 prison officers responded, with many excerpts from the letters being appended to the finished report.
The Woolf Report blamed the loss of control of the prison on the prison officers. Lord Woolf described the conditions inside ‘Strangeways Prison’ in the months leading up to the riot as “intolerable” and viewed a “combination of errors” by staff and management at the prison and Prison Service as a
central contributing factor to the riot.
He also blamed the failure of successive governments to “provide the resources to the Prison Service which were needed to enable the Service to provide for an increased prison population in a humane manner”. Woolf recommended major reform of the Prison Service and made 12 key recommendations with 204 accompanying proposals. The key recommendations include, a closer cooperation between the different parts of the Criminal Justice System, a more visible leadership of the Prison Service by a Director General who is seen to be the operational head and in day to day charge of the Service. Lord also recommended an enhanced role for prison officers and a “compact” or “contract” for each prisoner setting out the prisoner’s expectations and  responsibilities in the prison in which he or she is held and a national system of Accredited Standards, with which, in time, each prison establishment would be required to comply. Lord Woolf recommended a new
Prison Rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than 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 recommendations also include a better prospect for prisoners to maintain their links with families and the community through more visits and home leaves and through being located in community
prisons as near to their homes as possible. The report emphasized on the 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
prison officer 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. Since the Woolf report, significant
progress has been made in consulting prisoners about many aspects of prison life in UK. Prisoner representative
roles encompass prison councils, diversity and equality representatives, suicide prevention committees,
violence reduction representatives, among others. Topics that prison authorities discuss with prisoners include
activities of prisoners, regimes, work, education, rehabilitation, visits, diet, religious observance, race equality,
drug treatment, discipline, and others. Consultation has given prisoners opportunities to voice their concerns, to
feel that they are listened to, and to link their input into changes when they occur. It’s a two-way process, which
also gives the prison authorities a channel to articulate the reasoning behind decisions that are all-too-often opaque to prisoners. There is however a long way to go before prisoner consultation reaches anything like the standards of patient consultation in most hospitals and health centers. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman was also established following Lord Woolf’s recommendations. It investigates not only complaints from prison, but from those on probation supervision and immigration detention. Such initiatives are very much necessary in our prison system and have to be replicated without any delay. Such interventions are of great importance as they would help to improve the quality of life in prisons and guarantee that safeguards are in place to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge. Arrangements for monitoring prison performance have to be improved by more robust and comprehensive standards and a truly independent prisons inspectorate accountable directly to the Parliament. Restoring prison to its proper function as an important place of last resort in a balanced justice system is the basis on which to create a just, fair and effective
penal system.
The writer is on advisory board of an
Islamabad based think tank