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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Strangeways: 'An explosion of evil'
Strangeways demonstration
Prisoners demonstrate from the damaged roof at Strangeways
BBC reporter Mike Mckay won an award for his coverage of the Strangeways prison riot in Manchester. Ten years on, he recalls the drama and looks at the prison today.

You couldn't miss it. Driving down Cheetham Hill on that Sunday afternoon, the soaring column of dark smoke pinpointed exactly where Strangeways was.

By the time I'd driven across the Pennines, feverish rumours were already sweeping through the gathering reporters and camera crews that a number of inmates - sex offenders - had been "executed" by a lynch-mob of other prisoners.

Paul Taylor
Ringleader Paul Taylor shouts from the prison
This claim was to grip the watching media almost as much as the sheer scale of Britain's worst prison riot.

Officially, the authorities could neither confirm nor deny the story. A mixture of prison officials, solicitors and emergency service personnel speculated that fatalities were certain.

The Governor, Brendan 0'Friel, spoke of "an explosion of evil" inside the jail. The branch secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) at Strangeways remarked on day three: "No bodies have been found - but my gut feeling is that some will be found."

His forebodings appeared to gain ghoulish credibility when a bare-chested prisoner was marched out on to the decimated roof at knifepoint while another prisoner dangled a makeshift noose behind him.

Prison officers vied with inmates for the longest catalogue of grievances.

John Bartell, a national official of the POA told us some of his members had been warned by inmates that serious trouble was brewing in the prison - but nobody acted on the officers' intelligence.

Mike McKay
Mike Mckay: "Inmates understood the power of the media"
The POA, complaining of under-staffing, became one of the main communication lines for what was - or might have been - going on inside the wrecked jail.

The prisoners themselves clearly understood the importance of the media. Almost daily, from their rooftop platform they sought to address us.

As early as the second day, a banner appeared at a window with the words, "No Dead". One riot leader used a megaphone to describe how he had told the prison chaplain there would be a demonstration - "but no violence was intended".

The siege ended after 25 days with the last handful of triumphal prisoners being lowered to the ground in a hoist bucket - watched by live BBC cameras.

The rumours of mass murder on the landings proved to be false - though there were plenty of injuries.

Manchester Prison
Strangeways today: Manchester prison
A recent visitor to Strangeways - now called Manchester prison - who remembered it before the riot, said: "The biggest change you notice is the smell - it used to be dreadful. Now, there isn't one."

In the wake of Strangeways, the Woolf Report was meant to signal wholesale reforms in the penal system. Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, says change at Manchester has been substantial.

"Unfortunately, the improvements have not been reflected across the whole prison system. There are still 11,000 prisoners kept two to a cell - and purposeful activity programmes have increased by no more than 10 minutes a day. That's really disappointing."

But spectacular rooftop protests, with tiles as missiles pouring down, will not be witnessed again at Manchester. Under the rebuilding programme, anti-climb metal roofs have been installed on wings.

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See also:

28 Mar 00 | UK
Strangeways: Ten years on
27 Mar 00 | UK
'Tension mounts' in jails
29 Aug 98 | UK
Two die at Strangeways
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