An explosion for dignity

At the request of inmates who had taken over Strangeways, Michael Unger, editor of the Manchester Evening News, entered Britain's worst prison riot

Dear Millers — this weekend’s story is an extraordinary inside account of Britain’s worst prison riot. It is written by Michael Unger, the legendary ex-editor of the Manchester Evening News, who entered Strangeways Prison at the request of the rioting inmates to act as an independent witness and listen to their demands.

Now, three decades on, Unger writes the fullest account he has ever published about that day, including how he entered the most dangerous prison wings to negotiate with the prisoners, and why he came to conclude that the riot “was really an explosion for dignity.”

By Michael Unger

The morning of Tuesday, April 3rd 1990 dawned as a cold, wet spring day, not a good start for the 10 or so prisoners who had just spent their second night on the roof of Strangeways prison in Manchester. They were huddled together wrapped in flimsy prison blankets and their day clothes. 100 feet below them the ground was littered with bricks, slates and drainpipes thrown down at prison officers who for the previous 38 hours had tried to stop Britain’s worst prison riot.

Rumours were rife about the reasons why the prisoners had rioted and what the scale of the injuries were. The day before we had led the small-selling first edition of the Evening News with the headline “20 dead.” This was based on the fact that 20 body bags had been taken into the prison. Ambulance chiefs had told us that if 20 bags go in, then 20 bodies would come out: “Draw your own conclusions,” said the source. But by the second edition, no bags had come out so I made the headline read: “20 dead?” Still no bags came out, so to be even more cautious I changed the headline for all subsequent and main editions to “Mayhem”.

At 10:10am on that Tuesday, the prisoners on the roof unfurled a bedraggled sheet. Daubed on it were the word: “Media contact. Now.”

Unknown to me, my reporters at the scene volunteered my services. They contacted the press office at the Home Office who, after getting permission from David Waddington the Home Secretary, rang me to ask if I would go in and act as an observer with the team negotiating the move to police stations of prisoners who weren’t rioting; there were fears that if they gave themselves up they would be beaten up by prison officers before being moved. The prisoners also wanted a list of their grievances published.

They were:

Improved visiting facilities, including the right to physical contact with visitors and a children's play area.

Category A prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes and be able to receive food parcels.

Longer exercise periods.

An end to 23-hour-a-day lock-up.

So within a few minutes I found myself in the surreal situation of flagging down a taxi and asking to be taken to the riot-torn prison’s front door. I had no idea what lay ahead. Rumours of torture, mutilation and murder stuck in my mind. But I knew it was my responsibility to do everything I could to help bring this siege to an end. I arrived in drizzling rain and went straight through police lines where a Home Office official confirmed that my role was to be an observer with the negotiating teams. I was to oversee the surrender of two injured prisoners - one with a broken ankle. 

I quickly found myself sitting in a room alongside the main entrance having a cup of tea made by a small number of local Royal Voluntary Service women, who seemed oblivious to the chaos going on around them.

The riot had started two days earlier on Sunday April 1st at the end of the weekly church service. I had been having a lie-in when my son had rushed into the room to tell me that the prisoners were rioting.

A visiting preacher had just delivered the sermon and as the prison chaplain, Reverend Noel Proctor, stood to thank him, prisoner Paul Taylor took the microphone from him and addressed the congregation — Mr Proctor was recording the service for distribution to a prayer group:

Noel Proctor: After that remarkable message that has...

Paul Taylor: I would like to say, right, that this man has just talked about blessing of the heart and a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot, not with resentment, anger and bitterness and hatred being instilled in people.

[General noise, over which]

A prisoner: Fuck your system, fuck your rules.


Noel Proctor: Right lads, sit down.

[More noise]

Noel Proctor: Right lads, down. Down. Come on, this is no way to carry on in God's house.

[More noise]

A prisoner: Fuck your system.

[More noise]

Noel Proctor: Right lads, sit down. This is completely out of order. Sit down.

A prisoner: Why is it? It's been waiting to happen forever. It will never change.

Noel Proctor: Come on. This is terrible.

[More noise, banging, shouting, cheering]

Noel Proctor: All of you who want to go back to your cells go to the back of the church please.

A prisoner: What? You're a fucking hypocrite, you.

Noel Proctor: I'm trying to help you, to keep you.

A prisoner: Leave it, mate.

[More noise until microphone goes dead]

As the Reverend Proctor was appealing for calm, a prisoner brandishing two sticks shouted out: "You've heard enough, let's do it, get the bastards”. Other prisoners responded by donning masks and brandishing weapons, and three prison officers started to leave the chapel as earlier instructed. A set of keys was taken from a prison officer when a number of officers were attacked by prisoners wielding fire extinguishers, table legs and fire buckets. Some prisoners tried to leave the chapel via the vestry; at the same time, seven prison officers outside the chapel attempted to gain entry to the chapel. 

A second set of keys was taken from one of them. Some prisoners helped to get injured officers and the Reverend Proctor to a place of safety via the vestry, while others barricaded entrances to the chapel or attempted to gain access to the roof.

Strangeways prison riot ringleader Paul Taylor, centre, shouts to the waiting media and relatives on day six of the Manchester prison riot. Photo: Eric Shaw/PA Images via Getty Images.

The prison officers had had advance warning that an incident would occur in the chapel and security had been increased. Extra prison officers had escorted the prisoners to the service, and 14 officers were inside the chapel supervising the service instead of the usual total of eight. The extra seven officers waited outside the chapel just in case. News of the protest quickly spread and it turned into a full-scale riot, with the prisoners surprisingly quickly taking over the jail. Specially trained prison officers in full riot clothing were rushed to Strangeways from all over the North West.

At 7am on Monday April, 2nd an estimated 142 prisoners were in control of all the prison’s accommodation wings. Some prisoners were wearing prison officers' hats and uniforms, while others were wearing improvised masks. A banner was unveiled that read: "No dead", in response to the claims that 20 prisoners had been killed in the rioting. A stand-off continued all day with prisoners’ families worriedly waiting outside in the bitter cold for any snippets of news that may come out of the prison.

Tuesday morning’s national newspapers published pictures of the prisoners' "No dead" banner, while still insisting that 20 prisoners had been killed. The prisoners responded with the "Media contact. Now” banner — the banner that took me into the riot.

I sat in the tea room with the Royal Voluntary Service women for about 30 minutes before a heavily protected prison officer took me back out and up some stairs to a small room two floors above the main entrance. I was intrigued to see that there were no police officers around and only one ambulance by the entrance; there were about 30 prison officers in full riot gear standing by and giving me the most suspicious of looks. 

The room overlooked the two main prison blocks with a dozen or so prisoners on the roof of the right-hand building: and here I first saw the scenes of utter devastation in the prison wings and yards.

MEN Editor Michael Unger (right) talks to prisoners while a prison officer (left) provides escort. Photo: Manchester Evening News/Mirrorpix via Getty Images.

Broken tiles, bricks, scaffolding and planks littered the yard. The building facing us was clearly also occupied as debris kept on raining down into the empty space between us. The police helicopter hovered overhead, its siren shrieking away. Under the huge archway of the entrance 30 prison officers in full riot gear, carrying batons and shields, waited ominously. A limp Union Flag hung at half-mast from a pole outside the entrance into F Wing. Prisoners danced on a roof.

The officer with me as my escort was clearly not at all happy — not happy at having me in the prison and not happy with having to stand by and watch as the prisoners wrecked the place. He told me that if they had been allowed by the Home Office to react properly then they could have retaken the prison very quickly; he was stumped as to why this permission had been refused. 

We talked about the “20 dead” headline of the day before and even now he wasn’t too sure if it was true or not.

Eventually, I was taken back down the stairs, through the officers in their riot gear and out into the cold, debris-strewn yard. I was asked if I would put on protective clothing. I declined. I wanted to stress that I was an independent observer and not the prisoners’ enemy. It started to snow. With me was a doctor and a priest, but because of danger we were soon taken back into the main entrance and I briefly went back up the stairs to continue my watching. I never saw either the doctor or the priest again. 

Soon after, I was taken back down into the yard with a prison officer as a guide. The debris continued to rain down on the yard, shattering a car that was bizarrely parked there.

A couple of hours after I entered the prison, I had contact with my first prisoner: Eric Bell — still on the roof — was a young articulate inmate with red hair, moustache and glasses. Full of bravura, he shouted through a loud hailer that he would cut the throat of the first prison officer to come near him. Eric said that they wanted an MP and a member of the press to come in and see there were no dead bodies. He said: “We are not interested in violence. We are protesting about the bad conditions. We are human beings. We are not animals. We have a hostage.”

There was an unexpected and emotional postscript to his cool demands. “Tell my wife I love her,” he shouted down. “She’s just had a baby boy. Tell her not to worry.”

Some four hours after I entered the prison I met Brendan O’Friel, the governor, for the first time. He thanked me for my patience and said: “We may need you to talk to the hard-core prisoners as well as just being an observer.” They were trying to get through to two hard-core prisoners in particular, calculating that if they gave up, all the others might surrender too. 

By now it was 4:30pm and it was still snowing. I was called back into the yard to talk to the prisoners on the roof of A Wing. A prisoner called John Hughes yelled down from the wrecked roof with four more grievances that they wanted publishing:

Mental and physical brutality.

Misuse of drugs in controlling prisoners, particularly Largactil (a sedative known as “liquid cosh” which was used to control prisoners).

Poor food.

Cramped conditions.

They also wanted assurances from me that if they came down they would get hot baths, meals and cigarettes (which they were eventually given). Moments later a rooftop protestor shoved a huge coping stone off a ledge, plunging 100 feet down right in front of me.

After another 30 minutes or so, the prisoners yelled down to me asking me if I would go into E Block (the main riot block) to see that there were no dead bodies and to talk to the prisoners about their demands.

I was escorted into E Block up some stairs to the top floor of the riot-torn wing, through masses of debris and filthy water swirling around my feet. There was rubble and smashed glass everywhere. Huge steel cell doors had somehow been ripped off their hinges and thrown over the balconies. 

I squeezed past riot officers on the landing outside the empty cells until I came face-to-face with the ring-leaders who were above me in the roof space only inches from my face, but with a steel net separating us. They started repeating the demands they wanted publishing and then a hard man with a cockney accent took over, asking for more and more demands that became more and more stupid. I nearly caused another riot by smirking at his more ridiculous requests until I realised what could happen and quickly apologised and back-tracked.

I then recognised Eric and John, two of the roof-top protestors who had come down to meet me. They asked me if I would talk to two Category A prisoners who said that they “want to make sure we are not left battered and bruised when we walk out of here. We’re not animals.” They were quite calm. Eric then reappeared and asked if I would meet him and John in the privacy of a cell. I squeezed back past the riot officers, who were very concerned that I would be taken hostage, and into a cell.

John turned to me and begged me to keep in touch, to write and visit him in whichever prison he ended up in. I agreed. John wept. Eric then said that he was going back on to the roof to try and talk the others down. I walked back with him past all the officers to make sure that he wasn’t snatched. 

Then I did what John wanted me to do: go down with him to reception to make sure that he wasn’t beaten up. John showered and put on a white paper overall and seemed quite calm as he waited for a police van to take him to a police station. He again asked if he could write to me and I reassured him that he could. (Some weeks later he did write, saying that while he wasn’t beaten up in Strangeways, he was attacked in the back of the police van, getting a broken finger, but he was now OK). 

On the way down to reception I walked through the completely wrecked prison hospital and noticed in the distance a solitary man sitting in what was an office in the middle of the huge floor, his head in his hands. “That’s the prison doctor,” said my escort. The man who dished out all the largactil the prisoners were complaining of. He was sitting in a broken chair, sobbing and very much alone — a broken man.

It was now about 6pm and another 27 prisoners gave themselves up, satisfied that I was a truly independent observer. And by now the prison officers were warming to me.

In our talks they were clearly proud of the newly refurbished remand wing for young offenders and were distraught at the damage wreaked there. They asked me to go inside it, unescorted, to see for myself. It really did look as if a bomb had hit it. This new wing, which had been built with remand prisoners’ dignity in mind, was wrecked. Strewn around the stench-filled wing were smashed toilets, wrecked TV sets, ripped out telephones and steel doors again ripped off their hinges. Water was pouring down and the stink of burning was almost too much to bear. I was sorry that I didn’t have a camera.

At 8pm Eric and I met up again. He had decided to give himself up — he was very sad, very low and, with justification, worried about how he would be treated once he’d left Strangeways.

During my 12 hours on the inside — the only independent person allowed in the prison during the whole of the 25-day riot — 31 men had given themselves up and I felt as if I had played a small part in this. I never felt threatened and the prisoners were tired, articulate and mostly polite. As I was about to leave, I went into the governor’s small office and he thanked me for what I had done and asked if I would be prepared to come back the next day. I agreed to do this, but was never asked.

As I stepped out of the prison door into a surprisingly warm night, I could see all the media across the quite narrow road lit up by television lights and behind some sort of flimsy barrier. I was therefore surprised when a reporter from the Daily Star of all papers rushed up to me and asked me how I was: “Knackered,” I simply replied.

I got back to the office where I was delighted to see two reporters waiting for me — we had to do “My Story” for the next day’s early edition, including the extra grievances highlighting the fact that the riot was really an explosion for dignity. Our nursing sister was also still there and she insisted on examining me. On giving me the all-clear she just turned to me and said: “You’re mad. You just don’t know fear.”

The next morning Owen Bowcott of The Guardian wrote a very nice piece about me describing me as a “reporter’s editor” who “always found himself deeply involved with the best stories on his patch.”

The riot ended on April 25th when prison officers entered the prison early in the morning and gradually began to occupy the upper landings. At 10:20 that morning one of the remaining prisoners, a 17-year-old on remand for joyriding, was captured, leaving five prisoners remaining on the roof.

When prison officers reached the roof they put up a sign similar to the ones used by prisoners throughout the protest, which read "HMP in charge—no visits". At 6:20pm as I was driving to see an old school friend in Withington, the remaining five prisoners were removed from the roof by prison officers in a cherry-picker, giving clenched fist salutes to the press and public. 

Like a lot of newspapers, the Evening News was criticised for its “sensational” reporting, and while we most certainly made mistakes — all of which were corrected — we were reliant on our sources to provide accurate information. It was in no-one’s interest for us to be wrong, as not only were the prisoners our readers (and we didn’t want to worsen the situation), but so were their families, friends and the community at large.

I soon had a visit from a friendly Treasury solicitor, part of the government’s legal team, who asked if I would be a witness in the Woolf Inquiry into the causes of the riot. They said that I would not be questioned at all about the media coverage but solely about my 12 hours inside. This I agreed to do and a date in June was set.

During the official investigation, officers at Strangeways wrote to me. They criticised the governor, and defended themselves, saying they did a good job under impossible conditions. “Prisons are not manned by moronic, intolerant, beer swilling fascists,” one officer said. “They are manned by good people who care about fellow human beings.”

Ringleader Paul Taylor, left, and Glyn Williams are pounded with high pressure jets as prison officers stepped in to end the siege. Photo: John Giles/PA Images via Getty Images.

The Principal Officer wrote on behalf of the governor: “May I, on behalf of all Manchester Prison staff, express our thanks for the role you played during delicate negotiations with prisoners involved in the recent emergency at Strangeways. 

“Your professional approach to a very dangerous and difficult situation is very much appreciated and there is no doubt that it assisted us to make considerable progress in ending the situation.”

A couple of days before I was due to be a witness, I was in London and I bumped into Louis Blom-Cooper, a top media lawyer and a member with me of the Scott Trust, owners of the Guardian Media Group. He knew about my being a witness and repeated that I was only being called to talk about my time in the prison. Coincidentally, the next day I was walking through Manchester and I saw Louis going into the Masonic Hall (where the inquiry was being held) with Lord Woolf, the inquiry’s chairman.

The day came and it was like being in a Star Chamber. I walked into the dark main hall seemingly full of journalists, lawyers and their aides. I was placed to the right of a stage on which sat Lord Woolf and three lay assessors. To my left, in a huge semi-circle sat the lawyers, a lot of them behind me so that I couldn’t even see them. None of them had their names in front of them, let alone who they were representing, so when they came to question me I had no idea who I was talking to, let alone on whose behalf. 

It very soon became apparent that I was there solely to answer questions about the media’s role in covering the riot; no one, not even Lord Woolf, was interested in my time spent in the prison. I had clearly been misinformed by not only the Treasury Solicitor but also by Louis Blom-Cooper, who was clearly in cahoots with Woolf.

The questions came thick and fast and, perhaps naively, I hadn’t done my research on the media’s coverage although, of course, I knew intimately about the MEN’s. Naturally, there were many questions about the “20 dead” headline which I was able to answer while at the same time pointing out that we only had this headline in one small selling edition on one day and that it was based on usually impeccable sources. I pointed out that The Sun had led with “35 dead” some three days after our headline, despite my ringing the editor up saying that the story they were planning to use was very wrong.

I remember one arrogant lawyer sitting behind me so I couldn’t even see him, let alone know who he was representing, criticising me for not knowing the specific numbers of injured prison officers. I merely replied that if he’d had the courtesy of giving me notice of the question I could have answered him. Interestingly enough, not one of the lay assessors asked any questions at all.

Lord Woolf ended my interrogation by asking me if I had any regrets about publishing the inaccurate headline. I replied by saying that while I regret inaccuracies, I would publish exactly the same story again, given the information I had received from the normally very reliable and very highly placed sources. He was clearly not happy with this reply.

As I left the room I had to pass the Treasury Solicitors and I gave them a most evil look, telling them that they had lied to me. They just shrugged their shoulders.

However, when the report was published the following February, Lord Woolf was quite complimentary about our coverage of the whole riot. The report blamed the loss of control of the prison on the prison officers abandoning the doors outside the chapel knowing that there was going to be trouble. This "effectively handed the prison to the prisoners.” 

Woolf described the conditions inside Strangeways 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”.