Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars has a good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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