'Woolf Report: 25 Years On & Nothing Has Changed' – An article by John Bowden about the prison system's latest attempt to obstruct his move to an open prison (UK)

In April this year, the 25th anniversary of the Strangeways prison uprising, Lord Justice Woolf, who led the inquiry into the uprising, claimed that conditions in most British jails were now even worse than they had been before Strangeways erupted in 1990.

The treatment of those prisoners confined to usually overcrowded local remand and post-sentence jails (of which Strangeways was and is one), where the great bulk of the prison population are held, has always been significantly worse than the treatment of prisoners in more long-term establishments where the potential for collective unrest has always been traditionally greater.

Prison staff employed in over crowded local jails argue that the transient and difficult to control and manage population of such institutions, coupled with severe cut-backs in staffing levels, make all but the most basic functions of control and containment extremely difficult if not impossible. The operational reality of such an argument finds expression in virtual lock-down regimes and a wholesale warehousing of prisoners, as well as an overtly repressive response to any perceived potential loss or compromise of total control, all ingredients of what caused the Strangeways prison uprising in 1990.

Greenock prison near Glasgow is an archetypal local jail; antiquated Victorian architecture and conditions, and an attitude and behaviour amongst some staff that is often openly contemptuous of prisoners, underpinned by a relationship of power that renders prisoners always vulnerable to abuse.

On the 16th of March this year I was to personally experience such abuse at Greenock following an incident during which I was alleged to have physically assaulted a member of staff. The “assault” took place whilst I was being subjected to an “oral search” after being administered a pain killer; all medication administered in Greenock is “supervised” by prison officers and after ingesting medication prisoners are required to submit to an “oral search”, ostensibly to prevent them saving and storing up medication to later sell to other prisoners or commit suicide. Whilst there is therefore a legitimate rationale in ensuring prisoners ingest the medication they are administered, at Greenock some prison officers viewed the oral searching of prisoners as little more than an obedience test intended to humiliate and abuse. The prison officer “supervising” my “oral search” on the 16th of March decided that I was not adequately compliant and submissive during the process and so demanded that I submit to an even more intrusive search of my mouth. He was of course fully aware that unlike most of the other prisoners over which he exercised total power at Greenock I was a life sentence prisoner with a history and reputation as a “trouble maker”, a species of prisoner that he had heard much about but never before directly encountered, and certainly not in such an obviously delightfully domineering situation. His response to my refusal to be gratuitously humiliated was obviously conditioned by his occupational experience as an all powerful authority figure over short-term prisoners who fully knew their place – he began to physically push and shove me, shouting, “Do as you’re fucking told!” I calmly warned him to keep his hands off me and attempted to walk away. Enraged, he grabbed me and attempted to apply a head lock on me and in the struggle that followed I managed to wrestle him to the ground. In a jail such as Greenock to resist and subdue the absolute authority of “front-line” uniformed staff provokes a reaction of almost pathological fury and violence, and I was now the focus and target of that, under the euphemistic guise of “control and restraint”. As I was being “restrained” by a large gang of prison officers one of them screamed at other prisoners to “Get behind your fucking doors!” Inevitably all fearfully complied. I was then dragged to a filthy and unheated isolation cell, stripped naked and dumped on it’s concrete floor. I would remain locked within that cell for the next 24 hours. An intercom on one of the cell’s walls intended to facilitate communication between a prisoner held within the cell and those responsible for his well being and safety was used instead for the duration of my time in the cell to emit threats and abuse interspersed with laughter.

On the morning following the incident the cell was unlocked and I was thrown my clothes and ordered to get dressed and sit at a table and chair positioned just outside the cell, directly opposite which at another table and chair sat a prison manager. I was to be “adjudicated” on for “assaulting” a prison officer, a gang of whose colleagues now surrounded the scene. I was “advised” that it was in everyone’s interest that I immediately pleaded guilty to the charge, which I declined to do. Instead I informed the manager that I was guilty only of self defence and asked that the officer whom I was accused of assaulting be called to answer questions regarding his evidence. The manger denied my request on the grounds that the officer had taken long term sick leave and so the hearing would continue based solely on his written evidence. I insisted that where there was a fundamental conflict of evidence both parties should be present in order to allow the questioning of witnesses. I therefore asked that the hearing be postponed until the officer returned to work. The manager then declared that he would begin the hearing regardless, read the officer’s evidence and then decide if it conflicted so fundamentally with my own version of events that it was absolutely necessary for him to be present to answer questions. The officer’s “evidence” was predictable: I had carried out a vicious and unprovoked attack on him (he sustained no injuries), after which I was simply lead away by the arms by one of his colleagues, which begged the question of from where I sustained the very obvious bruising to my face and body?

Lord Justice Woolf in his report on the causes of the 1990 Strangeways prison uprising identified an almost total absence of natural justice in the treatment of prisoners as a core reason for the disturbance, and 25 years later my experience of prison “justice” at Greenock jail provided ample evidence that absolutely nothing had changed.

Eventually in response to my insistence that the officer’s evidence so fundamentally contradicted the truth and my own knowledge of what happened that basic adjudication procedure dictated that I be allowed to directly question him, the manger reluctantly agreed finally to adjourn the hearing until the officer returned to work. I was then shackled and transferred back to Shotts Maximum Security Prison after just a fortnight at Greenock, which supposedly had been part of my “progression” to less secure conditions of imprisonment. When the Kangaroo Court of the disciplinary adjudication resumes I will inevitably be found guilty and it will potentially add years to my continued imprisonment, I have always avoided direct physical confrontation with prison officers, focusing instead on trying to politically educate and occasionally organise prisoners, and such activities have informed a prejudice of me that for many years motivated the prison authorities to prevent my release. However, my record of non-violence over the last twenty years was making it increasingly difficult to justify my continued detention in conditions of maximum-security. In 2011 the Parole Board recommended my transfer to an open prison in preparation for release, a recommendation that was completely ignored by the prison system. Now the “staff assault” at Greenock will be portrayed by the prison authorities as clear evidence that my continued imprisonment is justified in the interests of “public protection”.

Meanwhile prison staff in jails like Greenock will continue with impunity to brutalise and de-humanize prisoners, and sow the seeds of more Strangeways.

As the prison population is characterised more and more by a demographic of poverty and disempowerment so prisons are becoming nothing more than modern concentration camps, institutions increasingly stripped of any rehabilitative veneer and existing simply as places of overt repression and the destruction of the poor.

John Bowden
HMP Shotts
April 2015

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 1st, 2015 at 3:41 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.