Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Michael Howard

Howard Tunes The Screws

Lessons of the 1990 Strangeways riots were largely heeded and, for three years, prison began to have more humane regimes. Then Howard took charge… Keith Mann talked to Andy Johnson about his experiences of the changes.

Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 28-29.

Apart from the odd farmhouse, only one building disturbs the bleak but majestic countryside surrounding the city of York - Full Sutton maximum security prison.

It is a sleek, low, red-brick slab of a building, circumferenced with a perimeter wall, and home to IRA members, sex offenders and murderers.

It is here that animal rights activist Keith Mann, guilty of criminal damage, has spent the greater part of his unjust eleven year sentence. (See Squall 12 for a full account).

Over the last six months, Keith told Squall, life in Full Sutton has become “stricter and harsher all round”.

The new ‘austerity’ measures are the work of one Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Home Office, who now presides over the largest prison population this country has ever seen.

“No-one has escaped from here, ever,” Keith told Squall. “It’s a flagship prison. That’s why the new austere system is happening here first.”

Howard’s “prison works” policy is based, as the name implies, on his belief that punishment and custodial sentences are the only ways to cut crime. In the words of Stephen Tumin, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Howard’s policy amounts to “being fierce to prisoners”.

That the number of prisoners should rise to record levels under Howard is perhaps not surprising, considering his reputation. What is surprising is that he alone should be responsible for the magnitude of his so called ‘prison reforms’.

Only once before has the prison population breached the 50,000 mark - in 1987. Then growing discontent behind prison walls culminated in the Strangeways riot of 1990. This led to a review of the prison system by Lord Justice Woolf and the Woolf Report, heralded by penal reformers. Its recommendations, founded on the principle that prison security rests as much on dignity and respect as locks and chains, was adopted practically in full by the Government.

Even Douglas Hurd, Home Secretary until 1989, described prisons as “an expensive way of making bad people worse”. (Hurd’s 1991 Criminal Justice Act was designed to keep petty offenders out of prison).

In the three years that Howard has been prison overlord all this has been undone. While introducing austerity measures to make prisons less inviting, he has clamped down on bail, parole, cautions, home leave and early release. At the same time he has upped the number of custodial sentences for petty offenders, such as debtors and tax dodgers. Moves are afoot, in Howard’s current white (consultation) paper to severely cut remission for good behaviour. All this is despite his own department’s research showing that prison does not cut crime (see box).

Full Sutton is a 45 minute bus ride out of York. It comes into view from the middle of nowhere and its eeriness is only augmented by the housing estate, complete with satellite dishes, that lies within its perimeter walls. These are the homes of the prison warders who, according to Keith, have nothing to do all day except unlock locks and say “no”.

Visitors are greeted by signs warning them they may have to undergo a strip search before they can enter the building. This, the signs say, is not to cast any suspicion. But visitors who refuse will only be allowed a “closed visit” which takes place in a separate room with prisoner and visitor separated by a panel of glass.

A corner stone of Howard’s austere policy is to clamp down on drug use in prisons. Ten percent of the prison population must be tested for drugs, by giving a urine sample, every month. Those who refuse receive seven days “compulsory confinement” and up to 28 days can be added to their sentence.

The results of this policy, as has been pointed out by many letters to the mainstream press by prisoners, is likely to be an increase in heroin use. Heroin remains in the blood system for two days. Cannabis for around 28 days. The odds of giving a positive sample for heroin are therefore much less.

When Squall visited Keith, who expects to serve about four more years, he said in Full Sutton there are now “dedicated search teams” - dedicated to finding illicit drugs. They wear dark blue boiler suits and carry silver briefcases.

At 7.30am one morning they threw Keith out of his cell - which is eight foot by twelve foot - and spent the next two days searching it.

“Six months ago you had to be present in your cell during a search, now they take you away,” Keith said. “They have fibre optic cameras for looking down the sink and access to all your personal and legal papers. There’s no way they can justify two days searching a cell except to read your papers which have been through censorship already.”

It is only personal mail that goes through prison censorship, legal documents are not supposed to be seen by prison staff. “They were supposed to be searching for drugs and instead they took all the papers away and read them in the TV lounge,” Keith said. During the search Keith was locked in a single cell for the day - unable to attend any education classes.

“The last occupant cut his wrists,” said Keith. “He was a sex offender. When I got there there was blood in the sink. There was nothing to do all day except sit and read a book.”

The search team also took down all of the pictures on Keith’s wall. “The cell was covered in pictures,” he said. “Except the outside wall in case they think you’re digging a hole behind the posters. Some people have lovely cells, but they don’t like that,” he adds.

Despite strip searches, squatting over mirrors (to check for hidden substances) and sanctions for using drugs - which include “closed visits” (an open visit is like chatting to someone in a canteen) - Keith says it isn’t going to stop drug use.

“They don’t like people having any quality of life,” he says. “They don’t like you having any home comforts. There are going to be prisons full of people who refuse to piss to order.”

In a report on prison security, commissioned following the IRA escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor, Sir John Learmont, according to Keith, recommended that all prisoners should have televisions in their cells. Howard vetoed this idea and ordered that TVs should be removed from cells in the jails that did have them, such as Strangeways which introduced them after the riots.

Because Keith is in prison for a matter of conscience, he is kept busy answering the hundreds of letters sent to him, writing articles and has just completed a book.

“If I was in my cell for 24 hours a day I wouldn’t have enough time to do everything,” he says. ‘TV is too much of a distraction for me. But for other people with nothing else to do it would take their minds off things. People wouldn’t have to smoke or get out of their heads.

Another part of the “austere” system is a sanctions system.

Ten per cent of the prison population must be tested for drugs... The result of this policy is likely to be an increase in the use of heroin.

Everything a prisoner needs, such as toiletries, comes from the prison “canteen” or shop. (Until 12 months ago toiletries - important in Keith’s case who uses only cruelty free products - could be ordered from outside the prison. Not any more. “It’s a performance every time,” says Keith).

Before, says Keith, you could spend what you wanted up to £15.00 a week which is earned from work carried out in the prison.

Now there are three ‘ tiers’. If a prisoner’s status is ‘enhanced’, ie their behaviour is considered good and they haven’t refused to do anything, they can spend £15.00. If their status is ‘ standard’ then they can spend £10.00, if ‘basic’ they can only spend £2.50 a week on essential items. The tier system also translates to the number of visits a prisoner is allowed each month. Enhanced prisoners are entitled to four visits a month, standard three, basic two. “The tiers here have only just been introduced,” Keith says. “It’s divide and rule. I’m entitled to four visits a month, the bloke over there is only on two.”

Another part of the new regime is the banning of phone cards. “Now you have to submit 20 phone numbers maximum and they have to be cleared by security,” says Keith. “They want to know who you are phoning, exactly what’s happening. Some people won’t use the phone now. It takes three months to change a phone number. So, for example, you can’t phone somebody who’s just been taken to hospital.”

There are other petty annoyances visited on prisoners. Prisoners can be moved at any time without their property. “You get it six months later, if you’re lucky,” says Keith. They can’t be sent books or magazines. According to Keith, a book has to be ordered from the prison and normally takes six months to arrive because order forms go missing. Everything has to be applied for, whether it’s for a shelf on the cell wall or gym on Tuesdays.

“It’s all about money,” says Keith. “More and more money is going into security and retribution. There’s satisfaction there. Nothing else matters. Education is being cut, the food is getting crap - basic and cheaper. It’s a stricter, harsher, prison regime all round.”

Keith isn’t going back to prison. He says he’s been given a “role” and a “mission”. People want to listen to him now. With 14 years for a first offence he has to avoid ever being arrested again.

He is also at pains to point out that conditions in prisons should not deter activists from doing what they think is right. “If you’re here for the right reasons,” he says, “it’s easy. It’s nothing to be scared of. You can live with it. The difficult part is the decision to go there.”

But he can understand how people get sucked into the prison system for good: “It (prison) makes you worse. If you can’t get them inside you get them outside by being more against the system. It’s so easy to get into this system and never get out. There was one guy doing three years in Strangeways for shoplifting. He got involved in the riots and is now doing 13 years for rioting.”

“The punishment is loss of freedom,” he adds. “That’s supposed to be it. The be all and end all.”

Prison facts

  • The prison population currently stands at over 54,000 and rising. The highest figure ever.
  • Since Howard became Home Secretary the prison population has risen at a rate of around 300 per month.
  • Home office research shows that to cut crime by one per cent it would be necessary to raise the prison population by 26 per cent.
  • Howard’s current policy proposals would necessitate the building of 16 new prisons, costing £60 million each.
  • The average cost of keeping someone in prison for one year is £23,000.
  • The average cost of keeping a remand prisoner in a police cell is £251 per person per night.