NORTHEYE - EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF A JAIL RIOT
By a former inmate
Northeye Prison was a category C prison in Sussex, England. It accommodated between 380 and 500 inmates and was converted from a former wartime RAF/USAF base on the outskirts of Bexhill. During the riot the prison was razed to the ground after rampaging inmates set fire to the main buildings.
Before beginning this account I wish to draw attention to the following. It is reported elsewhere on the Internet that:
At Northeye Prison in Sussex, a 70-strong hooded mob took over the jail and set fire to the canteen, hospital wing and sports hall.
This is not true. There was no 70-strong hooded mob. There was a small number of malcontents who set about burning and destroying the jail. Some also state that the riot was associated with prison guards' refusing to work overtime—again this is incorrect.
I arrived at Northeye in the summer of 1984. Life for the inmates at the jail was then generally a fairly relaxed affair. The jail covered several acres of land and was completely surrounded by a 20ft high fence topped with razor wire. A small purpose built village adjoining the main compound accommodated the prison staff and families.
That summer was one of the hottest on records for a time, followed by an equally harsh winter.
There were a number of manufacturing workshops, vegetable and flower produce gardens and engineering training workshops, in addition to the standard facilities concerned with the running of the jail and manned by inmates, such as the kitchen, laundry etc. There was a small separate and moderately well equipped hospital wing.
For recreation, there was a sports field, a gymnasium, a games rooms, library, and a television area. There was a cinema where films were shown every week. All in all, the inmates had it pretty good. But there was the Block, though to the best of my knowledge it was seldom occupied by anyone other than for minor offences.
Each billet housed about 30, between four to eight to a room. Although the main doors to the billets were locked each night at 9pm, the windows were unlocked, had no bars and could be opened wide. Each billet had several rooms and large shower, toilet and bathing facilities. Inmates had single beds and their own locker facilities. In general it was a well run, orderly establishment. Escape over the fence was hampered by guard towers that surveyed its full length and by night floodlamps.
The summer of 1984 and 1985 were long, hot ones in this part of Sussex. Many inmates spent their free time relaxing in shorts on blankets in the sun getting tanned. It could have been the Costa del Sol. I became so tanned that when one day a brother-in-law arrived at the jail he walked straight past without recognising me, until I called out to him.
The summer changed into winter and it was harsh, with unusually cold temperatures and a good deal of snow blanketing the ground. Few ventured out of the snug, centrally heated billets except to go to work during the day, or to walk to the large communal dining room which accommodated the whole prison population in one sitting, or to walk to the gym or recreation rooms. I was due to remain at Northeye for a total of 20 months out of a 30 month sentence after being convicted of breaking into a scrap metal yard office block. My brother-in-law, who arrived some months after me, had been convicted of the same offence and, because it was his first conviction, was sentenced to 12 months.
Sunbathing changed into long evening walks up and down the snow and ice encrusted open space bordering the fence along one side of the compound, well wrapped up against the cold in layers of clothing and towels.
My brother-in-law arrived at Northeye after absconding from an open prison in protest at our conviction, which had been facilitated by fabricated police evidenceof which we had gathered indisputable proof. Despite this, the evidence we had gathered was later whitewashed.
My brother-in-law left Northeye for freedom in the spring of 1985. I was working as a machine maintenance engineer in the sewing machine shop, which in the main produced prison clothing as well as the inevitable mailbags. I'd been trained to repair, maintain and service the large selection of machinery in the shop, which housed about 50 inmates. Tensions were few and far between, and were mostly centred on various arguments and fallings out between individuals.
When Bob Geldorf produced his renowned Live Aid concert for Africa on 13 July 1985, the prison authorities permitted inmates to attend the television room until 11pm that evening, to watch the televised presentation of the show. It was an unusual, and a thoughtful privilege and perhaps says a little something of the population of Northeye at the time.
Then, a few months later in the spring of 1986, trouble arose in one of the billets. There had been misbehaviour in the billet by a core of inmates and as a result some privileges were withdrawn from the occupants of the entire billet, including restrictions on visits. Instead of bringing the miscreants to order, the action of the prison authorities fuelled the discontent.
Shortly after the evening meal one balmy evening in August, several inmates set fire to some of the buildings in the jail. Within 30 minutes, several buildings were blazing furiously, including the kitchens and dining area. The arsonists continued their rampage as the prison staff evacuated all officers from the compound to beyond the perimeter fence, except for one officer who was isolated in the detached control room.
By now it had grown dark and the night was brightly illuminated by the many fires that had taken strong hold. Inmates wandered around the burning jail, mostly unsure of what to do. I saw one guy walking down to the kitchen with his tea mug as though everything was normal and supper would still be served. He even asked me if I thought there would still be any tea. I spotted another guy walking around in an officer's cap and white medical smock and a large bag filled with tablets stolen from the hospital, into which he was dipping a hand and scattering dozens of pills about him to his shouts of "Medication, medication".
Someone had got access to a telephone and had called the newspapers and television stations and helicopters with news crews, and even a light aircraft, were soon seen circling over the burning jail. A large force of police officers had been brought to the jail and had completely ringed the perimeter fencel. Fire servicemen and ambulances were also waiting outside, unable to gain access during the riot.
At one stage a specially trained riot squad with protective helmets and riot shields entered the main gate and moved like a giant Armadillo in a closed Roman phalanx style formation to the control room, rescuing the sole occupant and returning back beyond the fence. They were not attacked.
My own hut was one of the few that had not been set alight. I was moving quickly around the compound, unsure of what to do in the dark. All power had been cut off, either by the rioting or from outside. Then I heard a call from beyond the fence at a corner of the compound behind my hut.
A small hole had been cut in the fence and someone shouted at me to tell anyone who wanted to get out to make for the corner. I could see many uniformed figures beyod the fence, including fire fighters. I told as many people as I could, telling them to spread the word to their friends, then collected my guitar and stuffed my personal belonging into a pillow case before making for the escape hole.
There was a huge presence of security personnel forming a human corridor to the entrance to the prison officer's social club, close by the perimeter fence. I was ushered along the human corridor and into the clubhouse, where a few hundred inmates were already waiting. I was told to find somewhere to sit with my things and wait while it was decided what would be happening with us. There was a large tea urn and a good supply of buns and biscuits, someone had been busy. My name and details had been taken at the door to the clubhouse and added to a list.
We were held in the clubhouse for several hours, but were given little information about what was happening within the wrecked jail. Then we were told to listen up. We were to be moved to another temporary location and were told to ensure that those of us who had rescued belonging held onto them. Transport would be arriving shortly, we were informed.
Names were called out from the list and we were led out in small groups to board coaches. We were handcuffed in pairs and each coach had a number of security officers aboard. We were not told where we were going.
Our destination turned out to be a large territorial army hall several miles away, later identified as being in Eastbourne. The large hall had been filled with dozens of foam mattresses and blankets and we were told to pick up a mattress and blanket each, plus a plate, cup and some plastic knives and forks. There was also food and hot drinks prepared. This was to be our temporary accommodation for a while. By the end of the night, possibly some 300 prisoners were in the huge hall.
By now the inmate grapevine had been working and the identity of those who had initiated the riot and fires was known to many. We'd also heard via the radio that it was suspected that two people had perished in the fires, but that had not been confirmed. A television had also been brought into the hall, presumably to help keep us occupied. The lights remained on all night and few, if any, slept. We watched news footage of the burning prison in sombre mood.
With morning we were given a breakfast but still no information as to what was happening with us. The authorities had been dealt a serious challenge and had coped with it smoothly and efficiently, avoiding further trouble from an already jittery group of guys. There was a good force of prison officers present, although probably in inadequate numbers should further trouble break out in the confines of the hall. How many security personnel were on hand nearby we did not know.
I don't know if all of the inmates had been brought to the place where I was or if others had been taken elsewhere. Many were missingthere was perhaps half of the main population of the prison, if that. As the morning wore on, there was no further news of the suspected fatalities other than that two inmates had been confirmed as 'missing'.
Pre-cooked lunch packs were brought in for dinner, with fresh fruit for dessert and large urns provided tea. Most of us sat around and chatted aimlessly, watching the TV or listening to radios. Some who'd brought books with them lay and read. Every now and then I'd pluck away on my guitar for something to do. There wasn't much else we could do.
By mid-afternoon it was clear something was up and we would not be spending a further night at the hall. Then we were told that several places had been made ready for us and we would be dispatched to varying unspecified locations. The officer who was in charge of my workshop, a good dude with whom I had formed a friendship of sorts and who was visibly dismayed by the turn of events, confided to me that one of the locations was a young person's detention centre that had been evacuated in order to accommodate some of us. He said my name was on the list to go there.
During the afternoon we were told to pile our mattresses together and collect our belongings. Names were then called out and we were taken from the hall in small groups. Outside were several coaches at the back of the hall. We could also see large crowd of people gathered on the main roadside at the front of the building. Word had somehow got around that we were there.
The coaches all left together and as we pulled out the crowd raised a cheer and began waving at us, though what they had to shout wave and smile about wasn't really clear. Most seemed middle-aged folk, though there were some younger people and mothers with children and buggies and prams. As we pulled out into the main road, some of the coaches took different directions. Just one accompanied the coach I was on and it took almost two hours before we arrived at our destination, which was removed from any town.
On arrival, we were ushered into a large room empty of of anything except a large table at which two officers sat, another table with a television and a large pile of magazines and newspapers, and a table with the by now almost obligatory urn of tea and mugs. We were asked to wait in line and approach the officers at the table, who took details from each of us in turn. We were then told that we would be receiving our 'canteen' our weekly pay, in a short while. The riot had taken place on the evening before pay daybad planning by its instigators. Payment had no doubt been arranged so that we might have smoking materialsalmost a necessity for prisonersin order to keep us content. We would later be assigned to sleeping quarters in rooms elsewhere, we were informed. We were each given rolls of bedding.
Some of those known to us as having caused the rioting were among the 60 or so of us taken to the detention centre and I became aware that one of them was hoarding a pile of newspapers and magazines under his bedding. Others who had been his cronies were talking with him and moving away again to other parts of the room. Using the grapevine I learned that they were planning to start another fire in the large room we were being held in. There was just one securely barred exit and all windows were heavily barred. Two prison officers were in the room with us, one nearing retirement age. Although looking as though he was unconcerned, it was obvious to us that the man was frightenedwho wouldn't be in his position? I decided to act.
Gathering a crew of trusted pals, about four of us approached the guy who we knew had been the instigator of the rioting, a black Londoner who had a chip on his shoulder and a down on just about everybody. He'd been in the same workshop with me and I'd gotten his measure. I was also pretty pissed off at him. We'd recruited about a dozen other trusted pals who knew what we were up to and who stood by elsewhere.
"Doing a lot of reading? Catching up on the news, hey?" I said to him, indicating the pile of paper beneath his bedding. He studied me in return and didn't reply, but he knew he'd been rumbled.
"Look pal, there's no way out of this room. You're fucking crazy and we're not going to let you do anything. Believe me, look around, If you and your pals try anything you're going to be in deep, deep shit," I told him.
He looked around at the hardened faces looking on. "Just walk away from your stuff for a while."
"Do it," I said, when he looked about to argue. "Just do it. I'll tell you something else too. You try anything while we're in this place and believe me mate, you're good as dead." I meant it too. I didn't like the guy's attitude, simple as that. And I felt I had little to lose.
Luckily for all concerned, the dude realised he was hearing the genuine Harris spiel. After several days, news filtered through that we were about to be moved on to various differing locations around the country. We were not to be told our destination until the day of departure.
When the day arrived, I was put on a coach with about 12 others and told we were being shipped to Pentonville in London. I'd been to the place before so it was nothing new to me. What was to take place was, though.
Our coach had a police escort in front and behind and a helicopter escort overhead. We began to wonder just who they thought we might be. No-one was allowed to sit on the rear seat and we were all occupying double seats each but spread outin other words, no seats had adjacent passengers. We were all handcuffed in front. A young guy occupied a seat on the opposite side of the coach to me and had been due to be paroled. He felt his chances of getting parole had been dashed by events at Northeye, although he had nothing to do with them. I'd got to know the guy well and he seemed a decent sort.
I could tell he was upset and brooding but was not prepared for his actions when without warning he pulled both feet back and booted the coach window out. He was on the driver's side of the coach and seeing the window fly out into the road, the driver pulled quickly to a halt. We were on the main freeway approach into London’s western suburbs.
The guards on the coach did nothing, they simply quickly got off with the driver then locked the coach door. The helicopter circled overhead and the police escort stopped traffic from passing, closing off the inbound section of the highway. Within a short time the coach was surrounded by a ring of uniformed police. It was at least 30 minutes before anyone approached the coach but nobody stepped on board and it was a further 30 minutes before we were told that more transport was on its way.
The transport turned out to be a 'sweat box', the police prisoner transfer vehicles used to transport prisoners from the courts to jail. Inside each vehicle are about 16 tiny cells, just large enough to hold one person on a built-in hard seat. We still had about 18 miles to go to reach Pentonville.
I had my guitar with me and we were herded unceremoniously into the sweat box and eventually resumed the journey. By the time we reached Pentonville it was dark and a new surprise awaited us. As the transport pulled into the approach to the jail entrance, I saw a sea of blue uniforms waiting for us, probably at least 40 guards. I later learned they had closed down the normal prison routine for our reception.
I knew where on the transport the guy who had kicked out the window was and he was the first to be taken, roughly, off the transport. I heard him yelling and heard the sound of blows then saw him being roughly manhandled through the sea of uniforms and out of site. After a few more were taken off my turn arrived.
The cell door opened. "You, next. Get going," I heard.
I told the guard that I had a guitar with me, had done nothing wrong and wanted no trouble but would give any back if I was given any. I was roughly handled, but not abused and the guitar suffered no damage. I also had a pillow case stuffed with my personal belongings that had been on the coach. I didn't see that again for some weeks.
The trip through reception was brisk and we were afforded none of the usual semi-courtesy shown by the reception officers. I did not see my friend the window kicker. After passing through reception, we were taken to different parts of the jail in an obvious effort by the prison authorities to keep us as far apart from each other as possible. We were not permitted to mix with the other prisoners to begin and had to exercise alone together. We were all being branded as trouble makers and were being given none of the normal 'privileges'. On one exercise session we decided to do something about it.
I had been trying to get my personal belongings back, including my letters and photographs, without success. So had the others. We decided we would all apply to see the prison governor the next morning.
When the time came we lined up outside the governor's office and the guards knew something was afoot. When it came my turn to be called in to the office, I wasted few words. I told the guy behind the desk that none of those who had been transferred to Pentonville had been behind the trouble at Northeye but we were being made to take the blame. If it continued, there would be trouble. We had already been in communication with the main populationtry stopping the grapevine in jailand if we were not afforded our normal rights as prisoners we would go on hunger strike and the jail would probably riot. It was not something the governor wanted to hear, but he took it seriously.
The next day we were told that our privileges were being restored and we could apply for our belongings to be returned. They were, but I did not get my guitar. But then I didn't really expect it.
I had three months left to serve. My wife, who had not been to see me for the past 18 monthsI considered things were over between uswrote me a letter asking me for a visiting permit. My young daughters had seen the televised pictures of the riot and were worried about me. My wife wanted to bring them to see me. I sent the visiting pass.
While in Northeye I had begun the typing of an entry for the newly created TV scriptwriting section of the Keostler Awards. I was given access to a classroom at Pentonville during the days and evenings and provided with an electric typewriter, on which I completed the script. It went on to win first prize in the awards section, the first year that TV scriptwriting had been included in the entry categories.
I had been expecting to leave jail and be on my own again, but on the second visit my wife said she wanted me to come home.
Some weeks before my discharge arrived, a senior Home Office official interviewed all of the former Northeye inmates as part of an investigation into the riot and what happened after. Although nothing was spared in the telling, no results of the investigation were given to us.
It is unusual too that no detailed accounts of the event—particularly following the ‘inquiry’—are publicly available on the Internet.
After leaving Pentonville I was contacted by a prominent weekly TV documentary series, who took me to the perimeter fence of the abandoned Northeye jail and shot background footage as they asked questions about what happened.
The hour-long programme went out the following week, but little transpired from it, although it was well put together and asked some searching questions.
© Newsmedianews September 1999
updated March 17, 2013
Articles may be reprinted with credit.
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