January 1997 saw the biggest concerted act of revolt to dateagainst the persistently claustrophobic and brutal regime at FullSutton prison. In May this year eight prisoners were acquitted ofPrison Mutiny.
Full Sutton was opened in 1987 as a purpose-built high security dispersal prison, designed to hold long-term Category A and Bprisoners and, until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in1998, it was one of the main locations used to house Irish prisonersof war in England.
Throughout the wave of uprisings which spread through local andremand prisons in April 1990, the atmosphere in the longer termprisons was highly charged but only Long Lartin actually erupted. AtFull Sutton prison staff responded with a ruthless combination oflocking the gaol down, including confining the whole population totheir cells for 24 or 48 hours at a time, in breach of prison rules on exercise, and weeding out any perceived troublemakers , who wereimmediately shipped out to other prisons. This approach persistedwell beyond 1990 and while most of the system briefly strove toappear liberal in the wake of the damning Woolf Report, in 1992Full Sutton gained the distinction of being the first prison to usethe new law of Prison Mutiny. Those charged were neither rioting norviolent, but had staged a peaceful protest on the exercise yard. Itwas a hot day and after a few hours most of them were tired andthirsty; they tried to return to the prison, only to find that thestaff had locked them out. Eight were charged: four pleaded guilty;three were sentenced to three months imprisonment and the fourth to150 hours community service! The remaining four were acquitted. Thetrial cost £350,000.
By 1994 the segregation unit at Full Sutton had acquired areputation for extreme brutality. The original punishment block proved too small to contain the number of prisoners routinelyconsigned to it, so a second, larger block was opened. Among thesegregation unit screws were some who had been relocated from Leeds,following their acquittal on charges of assaulting prisoners inArmley. Prisoner Andrzy Jakubczyk compiled a detailed dossier ofhuman rights abuses in the Full Sutton seg and a campaign was mountedby prisoners and their supporters, with the support of ABC and FRFIto have these exposed and investigated.
1995 was a year of huge change in the prison system. Using theWhitemoor and Parkhurst escapes as a pretext, security and harassmentwere massively stepped up. At the same time the divide-and-ruleIncentives and Earned Privileges Scheme and prisoner compacts werebeing introduced and it was announced that Full Sutton would host thepilot for the pin-number phonecard system, whereby prisoners have toregister the numbers and personal details of an one they wish to phone and have them cleared by security before they can call them.(This is now being brought in across the system.) In November 1995prisoners on E wing staged a three-day work-strike against the newmeasures. This peaceful protest was broken up by riot squads and upto 60 prisoners shipped out to other gaols
The drive towards total control continued unabated. In early 1997,Paul Blackburn wrote to Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism, describing aregime where all the tiny things which might have previously made thedaily life of long-term prisoners just bearable had been swept awayin the interests of security : There s no daytime cooking, nodaytime yard; the gardens where we grew vegetables and flowers havebeen dug up and concreted over; cells have been devastated by theremoval of posters, curtains and extra furniture; there are dailycell-searches...new spy-cameras all over the place, especially onvisits, where there are also squads who jump on anyone who makes "suspicious" movements.
More and more petty, soul-destroying rules and restrictions werebrought in and discontent among prisoners grew. On the afternoon of20 January 1997 Dessie Cunningham was taken from C wing to thesegregation unit. The block was already full of prisoners from B andC wings, there on spurious pretexts. Dessie, who died tragically on31 December 1998, was a popular prisoner and when he was dragged awayfor no reason and beaten all the way to the block, the tolerance ofprisoners on his wing finally snapped. When C wing was unlocked thatevening some prisoners responded by smashing up showers, TV rooms andother communal areas. The wing was barricaded and fires started.
Such was the pent-up anger that it really was like a dam burstingand it was appreciated from the start that unless the destruction wasnear total we would simply be locked down for a month. - Full Suttonprisoner
The revolt of B wing began later the same evening when prisonerswere ordered to bang up 40 minutes early and a far greaterdisturbance then took place there, resulting in the wing beingentirely destroyed. It was a matter of hours before the flagshipdispersal was being jubilantly referred to as Half Sutton.
Prisoners began to congregate in the association area. Twp prisonofficers were in the cleaners office, and when two masked prisonerscame towards them and began hammering on the perspex windows withmops and buckets, beat a hasty retreat out the back. The rest of thestaff quickly abandoned the wing, leaving it completely in the handsof the prisoners, who quickly put up barricades, expecting animminent attack by the riot squad. When it didn t come, they realisedthe wing was theirs to render unfit for continued incarceration.Fires were lit and massive damage done to doors, gates, windows andeven concrete walls. Months and years of frustration were taken out on the very fabric of the prison.
Access to the exercise yard was gained by battering down thesteel gate with a wooden door. A large fire was quickly lit out here.The Fire Brigade attempted to extinguish it by shooting water overthe roof but this was soon stopped by a salvo of door handles thrownfrom the exercise yard and over the roof to the outside.
With the iron gate from the exercise yard it was now possible toquickly gain access to the rest of the wing. All the files and paperswere seized from the screws offices and the offices gutted.
We knew that we d all be shipped off to blocks all over thecountry and might not see friends for some time. Resigned to this, animpromptu barbecue party was held on the exercise yard, with cookingdone on smouldering prison files and decisions made on what to do.There was a certain strangeness to being out after midnight with goodfriends that you re usually separated from at that time of night.
The tactics of guerilla warfare are hit and run and thecircumstances were such that by that point little would have beengained by confronting the riot squad. So, eventually we banged up twoor more to a cell, to defend ourselves better against the brutalitywe expected to come. But it didn t. The screws were badly shaken bythe scale of the damage. We could hear them saying incredulously"Where did they get the tools from to do this? They can t have doneit with their bare hands."
As the tortoise of shields moved slowly round the landings -"one, two, advance" - it sounded comical. We were expecting a goodkicking but I remember lying on the bed in the cell, howling withlaughter. There was still an atmosphere of defiance and celebration.People shouted out abuse to the screws and jokes to one another. Wewere kept locked up all day and late in the afternoon they started tomove people out one at a time. The screws were in full riot gear butthey looked terrified. As I walked to Reception to be shipped out,slagging the SO, Governor, BOV and Doctor on the way, I walkedbetween a long line of more than 100 screws. Not one of them daredlook me in the face...It could have gone better at Full Sutton.Solidarity from the other wings for example. But it was still avictory. It showed what was possible, even in a dispersal .
Prisoners from the two wings were moved to prisons across thecountry. Many were kept in segregation, many were threatened and somewere assaulted. Masses of prisoners property was deliberatelydestroyed by vengeful screws and the Prison Service is still dealingwith outstanding civil claims for damage. Meanwhile, the authoritiesat Full Sutton reverted to their earlier tactic of ridding themselvesof any subversives before they could even contemplate complainingor taking action. In this way, for example, on the day it wasannounced that bang-up time on a Sunday would be 6.30pm, animalrights prisoner Keith Mann found himself ghosted to Long Lartin.
Such tactics did not prevent more protest and in April 1998 apeaceful protest took place on D wing and was broken up by the usualviolent intervention of Control and Restraint teams, who on thisoccasion were met with far fiercer physical resistance than they hadexpected.
In May 1998, after a lengthy police investigation , 13 of theapproximately 180 prisoners present at Full Sutton on 20 January 1997were committed for trial. William Edmonds, who the authorities weretrying to finger as a main instigator, had been released on bail,attended the committal but did not turn up for the trial. On 27August the other three C wing prisoners charged were convicted ofprison mutiny. They were sentenced to five years additionalimprisonment each.
This year the remaining nine defendants, all of whom had been on Bwing, stood trial at Newcastle Crown Court. There were sevenacquittals and only two convictions. Paul Lyons and Michael Guestwere sentenced to three and five years and both plan to appeal. Mostof the seven acquitted were men the Prison Service wanted to settleold scores with: Mark Gillan had been in the Risley uprising, PatrickFrancis, the only black prisoner to stand trial, had been atStrangeways and Stewart Bowden at both Strangeways and the 1992 FullSutton non-mutiny. Another defendant had previously escaped fromFrankland and tried unsuccessfully to have the Prison Service actionin holding him at that prison during the trial declared unreasonableand unlawful.
The Prison Service was furious when Full Sutton was wrecked in the mutiny and it was determined that lengthy sentences would be handedout to those it declared responsible. Instead the bills for legal aidand security run into millions and one acquitted defendant, aboutwhom there was uncontested evidence that he extinguished fires duringthe disturbance to prevent other prisoners choking on the toxicsmoke, has applied for early release on grounds of meritoriousconduct! Strange to relate, this is unlikely to be granted but thebureaucrats in the Directorate of Dispersals who have to process theapplication are probably as gutted as their prison!
The Woodhill 'Closed Supervision Centre' opened in February 1998.It was the brainchild of the Conservative government but there wasnever a second's doubt that Labour would continue with the projectand indeed embrace it wholeheartedly. The Woodhill CSC consists ofthree units, where prisoners considered too 'subversive' to becontained in the mainstream of the prison system can be arbitrarilyconfined until they 'progress'. There are two further units at Durhamprison.
There has been constant resistance by prisoners sent to Woodhill, many of whom have refused entirely to co-operate with the behaviourmodification programme. These prisoners deserve support. On thispage, two prisoners describe life inside Woodhill and John Bowden andMark Barnsley, who are at Full Sutton, call for solidarity actionwith the prisoners there.
On 7 April I was transferred from Long Lartin to Woodhill andallocated to B wing. I was given four "reasons": 1) I supergluedmyself to a chair in the visiting room (this never occurred); 2) Iwas charged with a serious assault on an officer (I was acquitted);3) I threatened to go on a dirty protest; 4) I was suspected ofencouraging prisoners to assault a screw!
I had heard about this cesspit before it opened and I fully knewwhat was in store, but it only struck me fully when I received aletter from Chris Brasher, who is on D wing, saying: 'Welcome to theship of no hope and no return.'
Prisoners on A and D wings are treated like animals. They are fedthrough door hatches, no access to own radios or drawing materials,half-hour visits, £2.50 private cash; the cell windows don'topen to prevent prisoners talking to one another; 23 hour bang-up,one shower a week. The list is endless.
B wing is known as the 'structured wing'. The operating standards(produced in evidence at a High Court hearing brought by Rifat Mehmetand Sean O'Connor, who unsuccessfully challenged the lawfulness oftheir allocation) stipulate that prisoners will be allowed out oftheir cells for an average of three hours per day. It won't come as asurprise that last week a notice was issued outlining that Monday andFriday association has been withdrawn.
Since the unit opened only six prisoners have progressed from B toC wing, three of them going on to the Hull unit. Two of thesereturned, another went to Whitemoor and lasted weeks beforeallegations of hostage-taking put him in the seg.
Four prisoners have been selected to go from B to C wing but dueto no-one moving from C to Durham, due to lack of staff (!) they willhave to stay longer. There are 32 prisoners on this 'ship and formonths it has been taking in water. Prisoners like Mehmet have fireddistress signals but for some strange reason, the coastguards areeither blind or there are no volunteers to man the lifeboats. To comestraight to the point, someone out there needs to come up with a planto organise mass support to either shut down this inhumane shit-holeor change the conditions very drastically. Are you interested? Youknow where to write.
'I can't seem to put my ideas down on paper at the moment. I'vegot no work top. Can't get comfortable enough to draw. Even my letterwriting is effected. These cardboard chairs and tables are a healthhazard. You wouldn't know what I mean unless you've sat in one forweeks, months, years at a time and gradually felt your shoulders andupper back rounding. Then after a very uncomfortable day you have toendure an uncomfortable night on a mattress with no give, or in thisplace on a concrete slab! I have always said that prisons are aboutbreaking the individual. If it's not the system with its pettymundane rules, then its the furniture.
Everything is regarded as a "privilege" here, for if you're"abusive" or "threatening" towards members of "staff", you simplydon't get it, which makes us even more "abusive" and "threatening".Their aim is to condition me and instil in me a "new set of values",their values. And I am expected to accept and value those values,which means participating in the regime here, conforming to everyrule and obeying every command. Well, I don't value anything thatmuch that I'd be willing to crawl through shit to get it.
'We are told that things might be improving here, well at least onlevels 1, 2 and 3. There's talk of 'more privileges' and 'moreproperty' being allowed to try and tempt prisoners, but unfortunatelyfor them their privileges are meaningless. For example, if we have"earned" it through "good behaviour" they will "allow" us to exercisewith another prisoner. They will "allow" us to have more reading andwriting material. And they are attempting to make differentiationsbetween A wing - level 1 and D wing - the unit seg, where beforethere were none. There's talk that we, on D wing, might be allowedthree showers a week - THREE! - but only if we've "earned" them. Theymight even let us out of our cells to collect our meals instead ofbeing fed through the door. If we've earned it. And it's all designedto encourage the prisoners on D wing to progress and see the error oftheir ways. I would laugh if it wasn't so pathetic and annoying.'
Anon for the moment as I ve not yet had confirmation it is OK touse his name
In early May the Prison Service made a lame attempt to defend theregime operating at its now infamous control unit at Woodhill prisonin Milton Keynes by feeding information to the press which claimedconditions in the unit had been 'humanised'. The propaganda effortcame as an obvious response to sustained criticisms of the regime atWoodhill and a recent court case which challenged the lawfulness ofholding prisoners in conditions clearly designed to psychologicallydestroy them.
David Yeomans, the governor of the unit and an individual who hadgained a certain notoriety for his treatment of prisoners in theWhitemoor segregation unit in the mid-1990s, was quoted in The Timeson 4 May as saying: 'We have humanised the regime at Woodhill becausewe felt it was too spartan'. Apparently this 'humanisation' will takethe form of prisoners being allowed to possess their own trainingshoes, a battery operated radio and six books. Meanwhile they willremain locked in cells for 23 hours a day containing nothing but acardboard table and chair and a mattress on a concrete plinth. Thewindows of the cells which omit little natural light will remainsealed shut, allowing no natural fresh air or visual stimulation.Fundamentally, nothing has changed at Woodhill and it remains anenvironment that engenders psychosis and despair.
The Woodhill unit was created on the premise that the structuralills of the prison system are in fact located within the pathology ofindividual 'troublemakers', whose removal from the mainstream wouldresult in a reduction of disruption and rebellion in the rest of thesystem. This scapegoating of individual prisoners for theinstitutional injustices and abuses of administrative power in theprison system is a familiar tactic.
In truth, Woodhill exists as an instrument of fear and politicalcontrol over long-term prisoners, and is specifically intended toisolate and destroy both individual and collective response.
Over the last five years there has been a concerted attempt by theprison authorities to roll back the reforms and gains won bylong-term prisoners over the previous three decades, and strugglesare currently taking place within the prison system which will decideconditions for many years to come. The Woodhill unit represents anintegral part of the system's strategy of destroying prisonerresistance and should therefore be seen in the context of a strugglefor prisoners' rights and humane conditions throughout the wholeprison system. Unfortunately the liberal reform organisations havefailed to recognise this basic truth and so have called only for aminor amelioration of conditions at Woodhill, while never questioningits basic existence. The fact is that control units are specificallydesigned both to eradicate collective resistance within the prisonsystem and to psychologically destroy those targeted as leaders ofthat resistance. They exist as instruments of political repressionand should therefore be abolished outright.
As part of the struggle to close the Woodhill unit we ask allthose who are genuinely committed to the cause of prisoners' rightsto support a picket of the gaol, planned for International Prisoners'Justice Day - 10 August. Your presence and voice at Woodhill willinspire and encourage our comrades in the unit and will also remindtheir gaolers that they are not alone and unsupported. We are callingfor maximum support for this demonstration of solidarity and hopethat it will serve as a catalyst for a sustained campaign to closethe unit at Woodhill and thereby assist very considerably thestruggle for prisoners' rights everywhere.
Open letter to supporters' of prisoners' rights I have been askedto write to you, on behalf of my comrades behind bars, to encourageyou to support the range of solidarity activities being organised insupport of the occupants of the Woodhill Torture Unit onInternational Prisoners' Justice Day.
Rather than asking for piecemeal actions in support of individualprisoners on Prisoners Justice Day, we are calling for the focus ofprisoner support to be centred on Woodhill for the day, as a show ofsolidarity with all of us who are fighting for justice and humanitybehind bars.
The brutality taking place at Woodhill is of significance to allprisoners, not least because of its role as a 'big stick' being heldover our heads. All those involved in supporting prisoners, no matterwhich gaol they are currently being held in, should be concerned bythe regime at Woodhill and by the sustained ill-treatment of thosewho fall victim to it.
At a time when human rights in prison, and those who are fightingfor them, are under an unprecedented attack by the state, we need aneffective prisoners solidarity movement more than ever. The movementcan only start to become effective if it puts aside petty sectarianconsiderations and delivers mass collective action in support ofthose prisoners who are on the frontline in terms of the state'scurrent attempt to smash prisoner resistance once and for all.
The prisoners in Woodhill have shown immense courage in defianceof the attempts to brutalise and break them, but they are presentlyisolated and vulnerable. You can help to end that isolation and raisetheir spirits by giving maximum support to the InternationalPrisoners' Justice Day activities, which we hope will form the basisfor building a truly effective prisoners' solidarity movement. Thebrutality at Woodhill must end.
An injustice to one is an injustice to all. Solidarity isstrength!
NB It's not at all certain what activities will actually takeplace, but the suggestion is a phone/fax blockade on the 10th Augustitself, plus a picket on either the Saturday before or after. What doyou think?
All above takem from Prisoner support pages of 'Fight Racism,Fight Imperialism' Newspaper of the RCG (BM Box 5909, London, WC1N3XX)