By London IWOC
On the morning of Friday August 4, 1972, many would have awoken in British prisons with an unusually pronounced sense of apprehension1. Two weeks earlier, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP), a newly formed prisoners’ union, had announced that, unless the Home Office were prepared to meet to discuss a list of demands, the country’s first ever national prison strike was set to take place on that day. PROP had formed earlier that year, during the course of an escalating protest movement within the prisons. Conditions inside had been deteriorating drastically since the publication of the Mountbatten Report in 1966, an investigation commissioned in response to a series of high-profile prison escapes. In the context of a more pervasive anxiety over perceived social disintegration (student and trade union militancy, the insurgency in Ireland, moral panics over sexuality and migration, etc.), the Mountbatten Report inaugurated a draconian shift in prison regimes, explicitly emphasising control over rehabilitation, and stripping away many previously held entitlements.
Screws used their union, The Prison Officers’ Association (POA), to push for the increasingly punitive measures advocated by the report, and subsequently took the Mountbatten recommendations as license to indulge in widespread deprivation and brutality. Protests erupted in response, the best-known being the HMP Parkhurst uprising in 19692. Demonstrations continued to spread in the following years; however, despite their proliferation, their immediate impact remained minimal. The Prison Department refused to officially recognise the majority, and lack of public exposure limited their leverage. In an effort to overcome this barrier, PROP was formed in May 1972 by a network of ex-prisoners and their supporters, to give visibility to the movement and act as a representative body for people struggling inside.
PROP attempted to articulate and represent demands for the movement in a Prisoners’ Charter of Rights. The document contained 26 rights, pertaining to things like participation in the union, communication, independent inspections, access to legal support, parole, visitation, education and training. Although a small organisation, PROP presented itself to the press as a much more substantial entity, claiming, for example, 500 associate members and the power to start and stop prison strikes at command. The media, for its part, revelled in the opportunity to spin sensational stories about scandalous demands, and, with front-page reporting and television coverage, contributed to the high profile the union quickly achieved.
The declaration of the national strike typified PROP’s use of the press. They timed their announcement to coincide with the POA’s annual conference, dramatically upstaging their opponents and disrupting the public relations work planned to coincide with the event. While forcing the screws onto the defensive, PROP deliberately set a relatively large window between their announcement and the strike itself. This was to allow time for both the media and the screws themselves to circulate news of the action throughout the prisons.
By this point PROP had attained fairly widespread support inside, bolstered by the achievement of concessions by protests at the remand prison at Brixton. Inside interest, though, far outstripped outside capacity, and so the functional network of contacts inside remained limited. To a large extent PROP operated by declaring actions and then focusing its efforts on publicising them through the media, relying on people inside to catch wind of them through the press or word of mouth. The screws also inadvertently helped information spread inside. Suspected ringleaders would be picked up, for example, to be interrogated over whether or not they intended to participate in upcoming actions, actions of which they may well have been, until that point, completely unaware, but were only then too happy to inform people of when they returned to the wings.
When August 4 eventually arrived, nobody was exactly sure what was going to happen, least of all the people inside. In the lead up to the strike the prison governors and the Home Office had held a secret meeting to discuss how to respond to the proposed action, and had decided that as long as the strike remained non-violent it would be tolerated. A sympathetic governor leaked the news to PROP; however, given their relatively limited network of direct contacts within the prison population itself it’s unlikely this information would have travelled very extensively. The terroristic suppression of protest at Parkhurst only a few years earlier would have been heavy on many people’s minds.
It remains unclear exactly how many participated in the strike, but PROP’s final estimation was somewhere around 10,000 (around a quarter of the prison population at that point), in 33 separate prisons. The Home Office’s inconsistent estimates were about half of that number; they spent most of the day attempting damage limitation in the media, denying participation wherever possible, and finding themselves exposed as liars in case after case. In probably the most humiliating example, an administrator appeared in front of HMP Gartree to an assembled crowd of journalists to deny strike activity, just as a banner dropped from a window overhead declaring “24 hour strike is on”.
As remains the case today, many people inside wouldn’t actually have had jobs, and so expressed their participation in the strike through joining sit-down protests on the wings or in yards. Despite this, what made the strike an effective tactic owed to the kind of labour people were engaged in. Prisons depend for their daily reproduction on the labour of the people they incarcerate. Cooking, cleaning, laundering and various kinds of maintenance work are generally conducted as prison labour. When this labour is withdrawn the institutions grind to a halt.
While in the short term the Home Office and governors may have been satisfied to tolerate this, the POA was not. Of the prison administration, it was the screws that suffered the impact of the strike most directly, and in this case it was not government that took initiative to crush the self-organisation of imprisoned workers, but this other, hostile, sector of organised labour. The POA co-ordinated a retaliatory crusade, the brutality of which far exceeded anything PROP were capable of ameliorating; an organisation which, in the meantime, was busy tearing itself apart in a power struggle among the central committee. Screws provoked, and violently repressed, riots at HMPs Albany and Gartree, and throughout the country targeted brutalities and reprisals were widespread.
Although PROP remained active in some form until the end of the ’70s, their backing inside didn’t survive the strike. Determined to achieve institutional recognition, the central committee had pushed obsessively for an escalation of the movement, promising support which, in the wake of repression, failed to materialise. As desperate pleas rushed out of the prisons, the union wasn’t there.
The need for structures to support prisoners’ self-organisation is no less acute now than it was 45 years ago. In the intervening years the prison population has doubled and conditions now are worse than ever previously recorded. Outside of the prison walls, the economic stagnation that was then only a suggestion of the deterioration to come has continued to deepen, punctuated by acute crises and global deindustrialisation. As factories disappear and ever greater numbers of people are abandoned by the wage, prisons are waiting there to meet them.
The world has changed, and it’s clear that when we look back on these histories we can’t just cherry-pick ‘what worked’ then and reapply past strategies in the present. The ‘70s are over and they’re not coming back, and we can’t afford to base our struggles on a world that no longer exists. But nor can we abandon the lessons of the past. It’s only in having done with what’s done, and drawing on what’s still useful where we can find it, that we can hope to make a survivable future.
The Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) in Wales, Scotland and England was launched in February 2016. It was inspired by fellow workers in the US, who have been organising in solidarity with incarcerated workers since 2014
(1) The main body of this account is adapted from Mike Fitzgerald’s ‘Prisoners in Revolt’.
(2) The uprising followed violent retaliation enacted against prisoners attempting to communicate prison conditions to the public. When a protest in response was met with further violence, the demonstration escalated into rioting.
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