- Created: Wednesday, 13 May 2009 16:44
- Written by John Bowden
FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003
On 2 January at least 80 long-term prisoners at Shotts maximum security prison in Scotland staged a mass protest by seizing control of two wings of the gaol for 19 hours. A negotiated end to the ‘disturbance’ eventually took place, indicating a recognition by the authorities that the use of physical force to end the prisoners’ protest would encounter fierce resistance, although the source of the prisoners’ rage remains unresolved.
Throughout the protest the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) maintained a conspicuous silence on exactly what had fuelled the prisoners’ action, while the media’s reporting of the protest focused almost solely on the alleged injuries received by two prison officers who, it was claimed, had been hurt while trying to intervene and stop a fight between rival prisoner gangs. This was a total lie as it turned out, and eventually the prisoners hung a banner from a window, saying ‘Leave our visitors alone’, indicating that the protest had been sparked by the treatment of prisoners’ families. An earlier uprising at Shotts in the late 1980s was provoked by the strip-searching of prisoners’ families, including old people and small children.
Less than a week after the protest on 2 January, a second ‘disturbance’ broke out at Shotts. This time in a special unit for ‘difficult’ prisoners, and again the media focussed exclusively on the injuries allegedly sustained by prison officers, while the SPS maintained its usual silence on exactly why Shotts was so clearly in a state of turmoil and open revolt. The impression deliberately created was one of violent and unmanageable prisoners attacking and injuring prison staff without reason or cause.
In reality, Shotts as an institution is intrinsically designed to provoke bitterness and confrontation, and since its creation in the early 1980s, its regime has been based on the principle of completely disempowering prisoners and denying them any opportunity or right to peacefully resolve their differences with the administration. It is a gaol purpose-built for repression and brutality.
Since 1987 there have been at least five major uprisings at Shotts, and for much of the gaol’s history prisoners there have experienced a virtual lock-down regime. In 1995 prisoner John Brannan described to FRFI something of the atmosphere prevailing at Shotts:
‘Each Hall is divided up into six sections, each containing 20 prisoners who are caged as a group into a tiny self-contained area that is sealed almost the whole time by locked grille gates. The screws remain beyond the gates, entering the sections only to lock us in our cells. We only leave the cells for work and are made to walk in strict single file to and from the work-sheds. The atmosphere of intimidation is something that you’re up against here day and night. Tension within the living sections is really bad and prisoners just pace up and down all the time, full of anger and paranoia. The screws obviously feel safe and in control with everyone locked up on the sections and have dished out so much shit that they’re now too frightened to open up the gates and deal with us as a larger group, face to face. People here are being seriously damaged mentally and I think that few of us will ever be able to readjust to normal life again.’
John Brannan’s description clearly illustrates how the administration at Shotts was and is itself responsible for creating the conditions for revolt and rebellion.
In 1995 the Scottish Inspectorate for Prisons strongly criticised the SPS for its treatment of prisoners at Shotts. In 2002 the Inspectorate again criticised conditions at Shotts. Unfortunately, the SPS has never been particularly receptive to even official criticism of its methods, and the continuously repressive and confrontational nature of the Shotts regime is indicative of this.
The protests and disturbances will therefore, continue at Shotts because of two related factors: the unwillingness of the administration there to treat prisoners with human dignity, and the proven ability and determination of long-term prisoners in Scotland to organise, resist and fight back with courage and tenacity.
John Bowden, HMP Durham