`Softly, Softly' Tactic At Strangeways Siege

Savage riot in Victorian prison prompts questions on penal reform - a letter from London

THE ending of the longest jail siege in British history on April 25 has helped to launch a reappraisal of the nation's penal policy. By the time the last five prisoners holding out at Manchester's Strangeways prison agreed to leave, a senior judge had already opened an investigation to find out why a savage riot erupted there nearly a month earlier.

In the wake of the surrender, a dispute has arisen over why the siege was allowed to drag on for so long. This, in turn, sparked a wave of ``copycat'' protests in 19 other British prisons. The debate promises to be long and angry. What to David Mellor, minister in charge of prisons, had been a sustained display of ``superb professionalism'' by prison officers, was condemned by an opposition spokesman as a ``sad and sorry episode'' that the government had handled ``disgracefully.''

Immediate steps ordered by David Waddington, the home secretary, include the introduction of a new criminal offense of prison mutiny, carrying a 10-year sentence, and the purchase of large amounts of riot gear to curb jail disturbances in future. At a deeper level, the authorities have to find ways of easing overcrowding in British jails and reducing a prison population which at 47,000 is Europe's largest.

One effect of the Strangeways siege has been to worsen overcrowding elsewhere, as the 1,650 men who were in the building when rioting began are moved. In several prisons, three inmates are being crammed into cells designed to hold one person.

One thing is certain: Strangeways itself will not be put back into commission for several years. As the siege continued, its steadily dwindling band of inmates systematically wrecked the huge and sprawling Victorian edifice.

As the siege dragged on, the proceedings were watched nightly by millions of television viewers who came to know the prisoners by name as they cavorted on the Strangeways roof. ``Strangeways Siege'' T-shirts and other souvenirs went on sale in the second week. For days on end, helicopters hovered overhead and sirens wailed to drown out the prisoners' voices.

Questions embarrassing for the government in London, meanwhile, began to multiply. Why, in the Netherlands, is the per capita prison population half that of Britain's? Why, in West Germany, are high-risk prisoners housed in modern, humane buildings while their counterparts in Britain are crammed into dark, dank brick buildings built more than a century ago?

The most insistent question was: Why has there not been a decision to storm Strangeways and prove that a handful of prisoners cannot make fools of the prison authorities?

Mr. Waddington insisted that the ``softly, softly'' approach was best, because it minimized the likelihood of death and injury.

The governor, he said, had tried to use psychological pressure. Sirens wailed through the night to deny the rioters sleep. Fire crackers were hurled across the prison wall. At one point prison officers played, full blast, Richard Wagner's ``Ride of the Valkyries,'' preceded by 30 seconds of recorded machine gun and mortar fire. Still nothing happened.

In the end, more than 100 prison officers in riot gear moved in to take control of the lower sections of Strangeways. Clearing their way through debris and boobytraps they made their way to the upper levels, and finally cornered the last five inmates on one section of the roof. It was only after they agreed to be lowered to the ground in a hydraulic hoist that it emerged that on Day 2 of the siege the prison governor had decided to storm Strangeways but was apparently overruled by senior Home Office officials.

It was reported Sunday that the decision to end the ``softly, softly'' approach was taken after prison staff had threatened strike action unless firmer methods were used. If confirmed, this claim is likely further to embarrass the Home Office.

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