Since the 1990 Strangeways Prison riot, conditions for prisoners at the subsequently re-named HMP Manchester have changed beyond recognition. From housing mainly local men with three to a cell, it is now a Category B training prison where almost everyone has a cell to themselves, and some can cook their own food if they want.
A report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2021, checked HMP Manchester against its ‘healthy prison test’ and found key concerns but some improvements since 2018 (see here). However, the inspection was done when COVID restrictions were still in place, when prisoners were locked in their cells for over 22 hours a day and there were staff and resource shortages.
A further report in 2022, on healthcare services at the prison, found further improvements (see here). Philip Robinson, who has worked at HMP Manchester for thirty years and is now Head of Operations, believes that there is a new ethos in the prison…
“I’ve seen the prison service change completely from what it used to be; to be more supportive of the guys in there” he reflects “There’s more understanding of mental health issues, like why people are angry and aggressive; and we try to help them as much as we can. We don’t see prison as punishment at all, apart from that they’re taken away from society.
“People need to understand what these guys have been through when they come to us” he adds “I always tell people that we’re on the end of a production line where people have had care issues, education, mental health problems, abuse…it’s easy to say ‘Well they shouldn’t be doing that’.
“The staff levels are one member of staff to 26 guys, so unless we have a positive relationship with people and treat them decently we wouldn’t be able to manage the prison” he explains “Humour is a huge benefit in there and positive interaction with people. It’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve been there that long now that on a few occasions I’ve had young guys come up to me and say ‘My dad sends his regards’…I’ve always looked after guys in there in the way that I would want my children to be looked after if, god forbid, they were ever in there. We’re not there to judge anyone at all, we’re there to support and help them.”
Over the years, some of those Phil has ‘looked after’ include Bez from Happy Mondays – “a lovely fellow, nice and polite, he just got messed up in the wrong things” – Real Deal’s David Dickinson, Ian Brown, who “wrote some songs while he was with us”, and a previous captain of the England rugby league side – “sadly an alcoholic who wasn’t willing to address his addiction so we helped him…It’s people who have made the wrong choices in life.”
Phil reckons that the prison has now calmed down as it’s mainly used for long term prisoners and those awaiting release…“The men are more settled because they understand that they are serving a long sentence, whereas we used to get guys who were serving 28 days and had a lot of issues” he recalls “It’s a different culture in there…”
With HMP Manchester no longer being just a local prison, there are men inside from all over the country, so out of the COVID crisis has come video visits… “You can get an app on a phone and we provide a video conferencing suite so they can talk to family on their phone. We can do that throughout the world, for all prisoners” Phil explains “Family is very much the silent victim of a crime because often they get victimised by society – ‘Your son or husband has done that, so you must be like that’ – It’s not the child’s fault or the partner’s fault.
“So, in our visits hall we’ve tried to create it so that if you blindfolded someone and took them there they wouldn’t know they were in a prison” he adds “It’s very bright and very clean with a lot of prisoners’ artwork, unbelievable artwork. It’s a shame some of these guys weren’t guided to an alternative when they were young. Some of these guys, despite what they’re in for, are really nice people. You can’t judge them by their crime.
“For me, they should be investing more in social care if they want to keep people out of prisons” he proffers “We do a lot of work trying to get employment out there but you only need one person to mess up and we have to build that relationship again.”
People have their own perceptions of prison officers but, for Phil, working at HMP Manchester is all about humanity…
“There’s very few professions where you have the potential to touch someone’s life positively” Phil concludes “It could be a simple interaction where you don’t think you’re touching someone’s life but very often you do. Some will turn their lives around, others not. It’s a very challenging job at times because there are some very challenging people. But you can help them…”
On behalf of the Bury New Road project, artist Louise Garman and journalist Stephen Kingston worked with long term prisoners at HMP Manchester, and the men produced some brilliant artworks and verse which will be exhibited very soon – watch this space…
The Strangeways Prison Riot – What was it? What did it change? – click here
The History of the Strangeways Riot – click here
HMP Manchester – The Most Stunning Building On Bury New Road – click here
I Sold The Strangeways Riot T-shirts! – click here
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