By Mark Leech
Mark Leech served 14 years in a prison career that was characterised by rooftop protests, riots, assaults, and over 40 successful legal battles against the prison authorities fought in every legal arena from the County Court all the way to the House of Lords, where he changed British prison law in the process.
Mark’s disruptive behaviour saw him transferred to 62 of Britain’s prisons, from Inverness in the north of Scotland to Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. Today he is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook, the definitive 1,600-page annual reference book on the prison system of England and Wales and among other works The Prison Oracle, the definitive UK website on prisons – but it was his bad boy behaviour nearly 40 years ago, over Christmas 1983, that led to him spending the following eleven months on the The Ghost Train, shipped out at monthly intervals to maximum security prison segregation units around the country; a journey that began with him climbing up a knotted rope three storeys to spend 12 nights on the roof of Long Lartin Maximum Security prison in Evesham as he now explains.
As 1983 progressed it became clear that in our new Home Secretary, Leon Brittan QC, we had a man who would make sweeping changes to the parole system. He made clear his view many times that there had to be a closer correlation between the sentence passed by the court and the time served in the prison. While the Court of Appeal, with its head in the clouds, claimed that judges do not take into account that a person may be eligible for parole, the fact remains that many judges do take account of it and sentence on precisely that basis. When Leon Brittan stood up at the Conservative Party conference on 11 October 1983, I was standing in a crowded television room in B Wing of Long Lartin waiting to hear the news; it was not good.
Leon Brittan gave notice that all prisoners who were serving five years or more for offences of drugs, sex or violence would not normally be granted parole, ‘except in circumstances which are wholly exceptional’, until the final few months of their sentence. Life-sentence prisoners who were convicted of murder during the course of a robbery, or the murder of police or prison officers, could expect to spend at least twenty years prison, ‘and for some a longer period may be necessary’. At a stroke the Home Secretary usurped the trial judge who had sentenced on the basis of the parole policy in force at the time, made parole reports in the future almost superfluous and, for the first time, united prisoners and prison officers alike.
During the course of the following few weeks, demonstrations in the prison were numerous. Work strikes took place not only in Long Lartin, but in other long-term dispersal prisons up and down the country. Television rooms, recreation areas and exercise became places of sit-down protest and a number of screws were injured in the process. The common thread running through all these protests was simply that the new parole policy should not be made retrospective, it should apply, if at all, only to those sentenced after the date it came into effect. No one knew whether they would be included in the parole policy or what, if anything apart from imminent death, amounted to ‘wholly exceptional circumstances.’
Like others I too was in limbo. My parole was due four months later and I had already filled out my representations and handed them in. I asked the governor, chairman of the Board of Visitors, regional director and anyone who would listen whether I came within the new parole policy or not; no one could tell me. I petitioned the Home Office, Parliament and even the Queen with the same question, all to no avail. I hated this penal system and all that it stood for. They treated you as no more than a number on a card to be rewritten and moved from slot to slot as they liked. I hated their double standards and illogical rules. I despised their physical abuse and frequent breaches of the few ‘rights’ I possessed. I was utterly committed to doing anything in my power to rectify all these; when injustice becomes the rule, then resistance becomes the duty.
Two weeks before Christmas 1983 I was asked if I would like to go on the roof of the prison in protest at the new parole policy. I jumped at the chance. Getting up there, never mind staying up there, proved difficult, however. Michael and Vincent Hickey, who were serving life sentences for the murder of Carl Bridgewater, of which they were finally cleared in 1997, had only recently come down from the roof of Long Lartin after a demonstration against their convictions. The Home Office were not pleased with the consequent publicity which saw television camera crews outside the gates and quite a lot of press coverage. Their predictable response had been to fit anti-climbing devices along the top of the roof to prevent any further demonstrations.
The anti-climbing device consisted of two pieces of metal grille, four foot long and one foot wide, slotted together to form a cross. Horizontally along the centre length of the cross ran a metal bar around which the two pieces of grille revolved in an X shape They were fitted to brackets along the guttering such that they fell out and away from the roof if any weight was placed on them. For ten days myself and the man who was to come with me on the roof, Stephen Robson from Cardiff serving a nine-year sentence for robbery, racked our brains over the problem.
The date of the climb was set for Boxing Day; though we were committed to it, we weren’t about to miss our Christmas turkey nor extra food which would come in handy later on, if only we could figure out a way to get on the roof. I was walking around the exercise yard on a crisp winter morning, staring at the roof, when the solution suddenly dawned, and it was not so much my ingenuity as their error that supplied it: the anti-climbing devices were positioned too close to the top landing of cells.
The cell blocks in Long Lartin were three-storey buildings with a pointed apex roof. The window ledge on the top landing of cells was only three feet away from the guttering that held the anti-climbing devices and the coils of razor wire. If we could get a person to lock himself in a cell on the top floor and slide out a board from the top of the window, that would enable us to climb closer to the roof than the window ledge allowed, and would also give us enough room to step back and over the devices, like walking the plank!
Steve’s brother, Alan, volunteered to barricade himself in the cell and during the next two weeks we set about getting the plank. We collected five locker tops, each of plywood one inch thick and six foot long, which we nailed and glued on top of each other. We scoured the wings for canvas mattress covers which we cut up and sewed into a bell tent. For cooking we took a large tin and thousands of matchsticks, using boot polish as a firelighter. Clothing was not too difficult to get hold of and food was in reasonable supply. To make our protest known we purloined a tin of white paint and a hundred party size balloons – marketing the product was all the rage the early 1980s. I had bought the balloons from the prison canteen, under the guise of wanting to spruce the wing up for Christmas.
The climb up to the roof was not without its problems. Stephen scaled the knotted sheet and stepped over the climbing devices without any trouble, but it took me fifteen minutes of hard work to get up to the third-floor window ledge and then pass all of the stuff from the cell to the roof while sitting astride the board balanced precariously out of the third-floor window. However, within an hour of setting off at 10.30 a.m. on a crisp though not cold Boxing Day, we were encamped on the roof, tent pitched, stove burning and a delightful cup of tea in our hands to celebrate our ascent; the screws were running around like lunatics. The governor, as he told me later, was ‘quite pissed off’ with our protest and he had his officers in the security department, who were responsible for the anti-climbing devices, filling in paperwork for a month.
The views from the roof of Long Lartin maximum-security prison are really quite spectacular and you can see all over the Vale of Evesham. Visitors to the prison waved at us in support, while the press took photographs of the roof, now emblazoned with our slogan: ‘NO PAROLE – NO CONTROL’. The negotiating officer sent by the governor visited each day and made lukewarm promises which amount to nothing of substance. Of course, we knew before we went up there that our protest would not bring about any changes to the new parole system, but that did not, in my view, make it any less valid; it has a crushing nuisance value.
The inmates were still allowed out on exercise each day and we had total support. Each morning a breakfast of eggs and bacon was passed up from the lads in the wing, though it would have to come from a different cell each day because of the spies the governor had planted to ‘interdict’ us. We had plenty of food, however, and the tent stood up well to the wind. On the first Saturday morning of our stay, which lasted for twelve days in all, we spent the morning blowing up the balloons, and when the visitors arrived that afternoon we let most of them go, each bearing the message of our protest, and they carried on going for miles and miles. We released the rest while the lads were on exercise the next morning-a huge roar went up as they sailed high over the razor wire and into freedom! On New Years Eve 1984 a plastic bottle of home-made Hooch arrived on the roof and we celebrated the New Year with a somewhat sozzled rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
When we eventually came down from the roof at 8 p.m. on 7 January 1984, we were taken straight to the punishment block but, contrary to our fears, were not manhandled; instead they gave us a supper of chips, eggs and bacon, a hot shower and then banged us up for the night. Tired as we were it was going to be 2 a.m. before we got to sleep. The block was full of people who’d passed food up to us and who the governor would not allow back to the wing until we had come down. Stephen’s brother, Alan, charged with ‘conspiracy to help prisoners climb up on the roof’, was also present and eager to hear of our news.
The punishment block at Long Lartin is totally separate from the prison wings. It is a square two-storey building with an enclosed exercise yard in the middle. There are visits each day from the doctor and the governor. The governor we called ‘Flash-Bang’ because of the speed of his rounds; flashing past your just-opened door just as they banged it shut again. Toilets were fitted in the cells, but as they had been fitted by the somewhat sub-standard prison works department, there were a number of problems. The toilets were fitted back-to-back so the toilet in one cell backed on to the one next door, sharing a common wastepipe. When the person in the cell next to mine had a crap and pulled the chain, his turds would appear in my toilet bowl. The next twenty minutes would then be taken up with each of us flushing our toilets in the hope that, between us, we could synchronise the turds and get them back on course.
The morning after we came down, I was charged with climbing on to the roof and the case was remanded by the governor for hearing before the BOV. During the course of the following week one of the lads in the block was taken into a strip cell by staff and beaten for refusing to put his mattress outside his door. The atmosphere in a maximum-security prison is delicate at any time, and that tipped the scales. That night a dozen of us who were down there smashed the cells to pieces, ripped out water pipes and flooded the wing, broke lockers, smashed windows and tore clothing to shreds. The governor responded by sending in the now disbanded Minimum Use of Force Tactical Intervention squad (MUFTI) squad.
When the BOV sat to hear our cases the following week I was facing three charges: climbing on the roof, smashing up the block and being in a television room sit-down protest that had caught up with me from the previous November. Everyone refused to appear before the Board and the result was a rather swift finding of guilt and punishment aplenty.
I was sentenced to lose 120 days remission for the rooftop protest, 119 days for smashing up the block, and three days for the sit-down protest. All of these came with their usual allies of Cellular Confinement, Stoppage of Earnings and Loss of all Privileges for fifty-six days.
Within half an hour of being sentenced by the BOV I was in a taxi with three officers on my way to Dartmoor – as we turned off the A38 at Ivybridge near Exeter for the final 15-mile drive across the Moor to the prison ‘The Long and Winding Road’ began playing on the car radio; a song that whenever I hear it to this day immediately transports me back to that night, and that journey.
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