Today in London’s radical history: Cons at Pentonville, Brixton, Scrubs & Wandsworth join in prisoners strike, 1972.

Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was founded as a union for cons in May 1972, during a wave of protest by inmates on British gaols. Conditions for prisoners had long been dire, and had worsened in recent years. Prisoners faced chronic overcrowding, hours of lockup in their cells, given inedible food, with little opportunity for real education, brutal treatment from screws, lack of any right to challenge their treatment. Many prisons were old, cold, dirty and run down, with Victorian facilities. Work was soul-destroying and paid inmates pennies while making private firms or government departments serious money. Visits and letters were subject to censorship and surveillance; medical care was a mix of incompetence and mistreatment.

Screws were trained to enforce violence against inmates, but many also saw it as their place to punish, humiliate and brutalise them constantly. Partly this reflects the class position which see themselves as coming from, a respectable working class, on a higher level than the cons… But violence was also institutionalised: any prisoner stepping out of line could face violence, brutality and isolation, but little had chance of redress within the system.

The immediate spark for the launch of PROP was a series of sit-down protests in Brixton Prison by remand prisoners awaiting trial or sentence, who generally faced a harsher situation than convicted inmates. Remand prisoners were demanding more association, better food, radios and basic ways of passing time, less lockup time in their cells.

PROP was mainly founded by ex-prisoners, men and women who had served various stretches inside. Their founding statement asserted that PROP had been founded in response to the degrading and dehumanising conditions inside, and to “preserve, protect, and to extend the rights of prisoners and prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society…”

PROP’s launch and the quick spread of this news among prisoners encouraged protests inside. Further sit-down took place in Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton, Gartree (twice) and Strangeways nicks in the next week, and this was to escalate. Over 15 prisons had experienced demos by the end of May, and 20 more protests took place in the first two weeks of June. PROP committees were elected in several prisons.

The early wave of anger in remand prisons pushed the Home Office into making concessions. These were very limited (individual razors where 300 men had shared 7, radios, longer exercises, a movie a week), but left prisoners generally with the (correct) conclusion that collective organization could win changes. The Home Office officially tried to play down the role of PROP and minimalise news of the demos getting out, or to belittle them if it did. However they were rattled, and agreed not to punish any cons for taking part.

The mass peaceful nature of the sit-downs baffled the screws, who found it hard to respond. Picking out individuals from a large crowd only heightening tension and escalating trouble. ‘Ghosting’ troublemakers (immediately shipping them out to another prison) only served to spread the protests. The screws, as usual regarding the official decision not to punish protestors as liberal waffle which failed to back up the ‘hardworking officers on the ground’, resorted to provoking violence as a way of justifying intervention by the ‘Heavy Mob’ to shut down protests. Individual prisoners were marked out and beaten up. This was to lead to serious rioting in Gartree and Albany Prisons later in the year.

But as the Home Office refused to negotiate or even discuss PROP’s or the prisoners’ demands, PROP announced plans for a national prisoners’ strike on 4th August 1972. Complaints about conditions had been ignored; protestors had been brutalized, isolated and denied access to solicitors. PROP called for a 24-hour refusal to co-operate with prison authorities, until the following demands were met or given urgent consideration:

• The Right to membership of PROP and official recognition of PROP by the Home Office, and Prison Department as the true representatives of all prisoners;

• The setting up of PROP committees elected by prisoners in all penal establishments;

• The right to parole, providing certain well-established and widely known criteria are met;

• An end to the kangaroo court nature of internal disciplinary proceedings where prisoners are denied the right to legal representation and the effective right to call witnesses;

• The right to Trade Union membership and to have pay and conditions determined by negotiation;

• The right of all prisoners to withhold labour as a protest against unjust and inhuman conditions;

• An end to disciplinary proceedings against prisoners who have participated in peaceful demonstrations and the restoration of all remission and privileges which have been forfeited by the participants in previous demonstrations on charges arising from them;

• An early meeting between representatives of the Home Office and the National Executive Committee of PROP to discuss the restoration of prisoners’ rights and the ways in which they might be enabled to meet their responsibilities to their families and to society.

PROP had announced the strike with two weeks notice; this served to allow time for word to spread around the prison system. In fact, the press did much of this job. Even the prison authorities did their bit; so anxious were they to find out how much support there was for the strike they ended up asking inmates who had not even yet heard of the plan if they were going to take part, effectively recruiting cons into the plan!

In the end some 10,000 prisoners in 34 gaols (Albany, Birmingham, Blunderston, Bristol, Brixton, Camp Hill, Canterbury, Chelmsford, Coldingley, Dartmoor, Durham, Gartree, Gloucester, Haverigg, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Long Lartin, Maidstone, Strangeways, Northeye, Nottingham, Oxford, Parkhurst, Pentonville, Preston, Stafford, Wakefield, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs) took part, a massive show of strength: perhaps 25 % of the prison population at the time.

The Home Office and individual Prison governors repeatedly denied the strike had any support, until direct evidence contradicted them.

Those who took part in the Brixton protest claimed the prisoners had in effect taken over the running of the prison for a day.

However, the Prison Officers Association (POA) responded with a hardline – a demand for further repression and a work to rule, spreading alarm about prison violence, and on the ground, provoking violence to justify repression. The immediate result was two riots, in Gartree and Albany. With a sympathetic rightwing press behind them, the POA effectively won the case for repression, and although protests continued sporadically, the impetus was lost as no further concession seemed likely.

Meanwhile PROP soon collapsed in internal bickering, and lost confidence among prisoners as they were unable to win any of the prisoners’ demands, or even to manifest the outside support for the prison protests that they had promised. Although PROP continued to exist, it worked thereafter on a much smaller and local scale or on educational projects.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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