For 4 days in September 1976 prisoners took over 3 of the 4 wings of Hull jail.
The Hull Riot did not just happen out of the blue. It was preceded by years of petitioning by prisoners, and public appeals that action be taken to investigate the rapidly deteriorating conditions and increasingly harsh regime there.
A full 9 months before the riot a press release drew attention to these conditions and the use of Hull prison as the staging post in the transfer of prisoners to the notorious Control Unit at Wakefield. It called for the immediate suspension of Hull’s Governor Kearns, pending the outcome of an independent inquiry into his running of the prison. Dr. Shirley Summerskil, Minister of State at the Home Office, replied:
“The Governor of Hull Prison has my full confidence and I have no intention of acceding to the demands made in the press release for his suspension and the holding of an independent inquiry into how he runs the prison.”
Nine months later the lid blew off.
In introducing this collection of prisoners personal accounts of the riot and its brutal aftermath we must make it clear that it would have been impossible for prisoners to have collaborated together in writing them. Immediately after the riot, those involved were dispersed to prisons all over England and segregated from other prisoners. To those who have suggested that these depositions were part of a well orchestrated conspiracy by prisoners to undermine the prison authorities, these accounts offer their own evidence. They reached us mostly on toilet paper, the only paper available to prisoners kept in solitary confinement. Smuggling out the evidence at great risk to themselves required a genuine belief in what they had written.
None of those involved in the riot stood to gain from it. More than 60 prisoners received up to 830 days loss of remission, loss of privileges and solitary confinement as a result of it. These sentences were handed out by a Board of Visitors at “hearings” lasting as little as 5 minutes.
The prisoners were allowed neither lawyers or witnesses. Many have appealed to the High Court and to the European Court of Human Rights against these vicious sentences, and the damage done to themselves and their property after the riot. They are still waiting for a hearing 3 years later … long after most of the sentences have been served.
After a 5 month delay the police opened their own investigations into prisoners’ accusations of brutality by Prison Officers in the aftermath of the riot. The announcement of this investigation was clearly timed to counter growing demands for the full-scale public inquiry which the Hull prisoners had called for on their roof-top banners.
It was as a result of the governments refusal to accede to these demands that PROP undertook to mount its own Public Inquiry which took place during 4 days in May 1977 at which many relatives and visitors to Hull prisoners gave evidence.
The PROP inquiry only started to receive national press coverage at the end of its final day. The London publicity which might have drawn public attention to the proceedings while they were in progress was never forthcoming despite the enthusiasm of the reporters present.
For over 2 years public awareness of what happened at Hull has rested on these prisoners’ accounts. During those 2 years the Home Office has done everything possible to impede the police investigations by keeping witnesses continually on the move, no doubt hoping the matter would be forgotten and the charges dropped. It is the prisoners that made sure they were not forgotten.
The Home Office has been forced to use these prosecutions as a means of diverting attention from their own responsibility for what happened at Hull. Having over many years given brutal prison officers the green light to go ahead, they are now faced with a militancy of their own making.
The only official inquiry into the riot was restricted to the Home Offices’ own internal investigation subsequently published in the Fowler report. Typical of Fowler’s approach was his description of the Prison Officer’s actions which has now led to guilty verdicts on charges of assault as ”an excess of zeal”. The report was in every way a whitewash like that of every other prison riot.
But this time the prisoners speak for themselves. They write of the effects of the long stretches of deprivation and of brutality, everyday harassment by screws (many professed members of the National Front); slave labour - making furniture for other prisons in purportedly underdeveloped countries; of a community forced to turn in on itself and fight each other. Again and again they bring up the files found 30 minutes after the riot began, files kept by the prison authorities which described prisoners as animals in pages of crude “psychological” jargon. Witnesses write of the destruction of their identity until they could stand it no longer.
Hull, like every other riot, was a breaking point. It was an explosion necessary for survival, for their mental health. For a short time prisoners helped each other, made banners together, organised their own food and water, talked across the wall to the outside world (mostly to 400 children!). There are more than 42,000 people being destroyed in English prisons now: Hull wasn’t the first riot and won’t be the last until its lessons are learned. The power games played by the Home Office through prison officials are using prisoners lives and the lives of friends and families as fodder. The tensions that result must inevitably lead to more and bigger riots until we experience a tragedy on the scale of the Attica riot in America where 32 prisoners and 11 screws were killed by State troopers.
From: Don't Mark His Face: Hull Prison Riot (1976), National Prisoners' Movement PROP, London and Humberside 1976.