Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.
The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.
In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.
PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.
PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.
In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’
The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:
‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:
- Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
• Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
- Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
- Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
- Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
- Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
- Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
- Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
- Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’
The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:
‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:
The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;
The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;
The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;
The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;
The Right to vote in national and local government elections;
The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;
The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;
The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;
The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;
The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;
The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;
The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;
The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;
The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;
The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;
The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;
The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;
The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;
The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;
The Right to enter into marriage;
The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;
The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;
The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;
The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:
- Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
- The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
- The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
- The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
- An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.
The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”
PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.
Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.
A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:
“Dear Mr Pooley,
Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.
Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.
A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…
We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)
A lot of chaps want to be in touch.
PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).
But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…
(This story will be continued on May 13th)
A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar