The Wolf Report, 1991

Lord Justice Woolf’s Prison Disturbances April 1990: Report of An Inquiry (1991) is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and progressive reports in the history of prisons in England and Wales. Harry Woolf, the former chief justice who wrote the report on the 1991 Strangeways prison riot, says its lessons haven’t been learned.

The Woolf Report (1991) was commissioned in the aftermath of the disturbances at HMP Strangeways between 1 – 25 April 1990. The Strangeways disturbances were the longest in UK penal history and sparked riots in twenty-five further institutions, including Glen Parva, Dartmoor, Cardiff, Bristol and Pucklechurch. On publication the Woolf Report was acclaimed as the blueprint for prison policy for the next three decades.

Prison officers know that the control of a prison depends largely on the consent of the prisoners. What can happen when that consent is withdrawn was never demonstrated more powerfully than on this day 25 years ago when the prisoners in Manchester’s Strangeways prison rebelled. The riot that followed left two people dead and turned into the longest prison siege in British penal history.

Despite the lessons learned from Woolf’s seminal report into the riot, with a prisoner population today of around 87,000 (twice what it was 25 years ago), and reoffending rates as high as ever.

So where has it all gone wrong? Woolf says his 1991 recommendations were based on the most comprehensive analysis of the prison system for over 100 years and that they were initially embraced by politicians. “Things were changing very much for the better,” he recalls. “But then there was a competition between different politicians to see who could sound the toughest on crime – and for that read prisoners. They concentrated on sounding tough and as a result forced themselves into a dead end where they couldn’t do the reforms they might otherwise have wanted to do. The resources were all being used to send more people to prison for longer.”

My advice is to get prison sentences back into proportion and try and relieve the pressure on the system

Is he disappointed that many of the recommendations, such as prisoners being held close to home and increased delegation of responsibility to individual prison governors, have all but been abandoned. “Naturally, I’m disappointed, but I think it’s much better to look forward than to look back,” he says.

One of the Woolf recommendations was that prisons should be small – no more than 400 places. Or if the prisons were big, they should be divided into small units within the perimeter walls. How does he feel about the 2,200-place prison under construction in Wrexham? “I’m instinctively against Titan prisons,” he says, “but that is the path they are going down. I’ll try and encourage them to follow my signs on prison size.”

He is also concerned about staff shortages. Over the past four years prison officer numbers have been cut by a third. Now, the government is trying to entice many of the thousands of officers made redundant to come back. On any given day, hundreds of officers are being bussed around the country. Hotel bills of hundreds of pounds a week are being racked up for officers recruited in the north to work in prisons in the south.

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