Strangeways prison staff say rooftop protester was right on lockdowns

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent
Stuart Horner sits on the roof of Manchester’s Strangeways prison, 15 September 2015. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Prison staff have revealed they shared concerns about conditions at HM Prison Manchester, commonly known as Strangeways, that led to a 60-hour rooftop protest by a prisoner.

Convicted murderer Stuart Horner endangered his own life in order to stage a protest after claims that his concerns about prolonged incarceration in cells and lack of staff were ignored.

Horner, who is serving life at the high-security male prison for the murder of his uncle, Ian Taylor, spent more than two nights on the roof of the prison, smashing glass panes and causing disruption.

The cost of the incident by the category A prisoner, who was jailed in May 2012 after killing his uncle with a sawn-off shotgun, could be in excess of £1m. But Horner claims he was pushed into protesting due to prison conditions.

Manchester crown court heard staffing issues had led to prisoners being on “lockdown” regularly, which meant they could be confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.

Horner is also said to have told prison officers how prisoners were using psychoactive drugs such as spice and were increasingly using their phones to alleviate boredom.

Sitting in the dock flanked by four security guards, Horner, 36, from Wythenshawe, denied charges of criminal damage and affray.

The court heard from prison staff of all ranks who admitted there were staffing issues at the time of the protest. Stephanie McGrath, a trained negotiator, who was drafted into liaise with Horner, said she shared some of his concerns about prisoners being locked up for prolonged periods of time.

She said: “There were quite a lot of issues with the lads getting their basic stuff ... staffing issues across the whole jail.” She said Horner was “frustrated” that his wing was “locked up”, and had complained about towels. He also spoke to her about how a “lot of lads” were using drugs and phones to alleviate boredom.

He told her: “I’m doing it for the lads on E wing and all the prisoners. I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m doing it for all the staff as well – it’s about the conditions, all the bang-up and hardly any staff ... I don’t even like heights, Miss, it’s just something I’ve got to do.”

When the defence barrister, Mark Ford, asked her to clarify the reasons behind staff shortages and issues at the prison, McGrath replied: “I don’t know, ask the government.”

Another negotiator and prison officer, Simon Horner, who is no relation to the defendant, also said he agreed with some of the defendants’ complaints. “He talked about the amount of time prisoners were spending in their cells, lack of time to use the facilities.”

Asked if these concerns had any basis, the officer replied: “To a degree yes, there were quite a lot of lockdowns at the time.”

The officer said lockdowns were used to free up staff to work on other wings, but that it was beyond his remit to explain why there were staff shortages.

The court heard that on 13 September 2015 Horner was on the prison’s segregation unit after climbing onto netting the week before.

Dressed in the striped blue and yellow uniform of an “escape risk” prisoner due to a previous attempted escape from another prison, HMP Garth in Lancashire, he was allowed out into the exercise yard at Strangeways.

While the officer supervising him was busy with another prisoner, Horner climbed up a fence. He went on to clamber onto some netting before climbing onto the roof. He remained there for 60 hours.

Crowds of prisoners cheered as he smashed glass panels with a metal pole, attacked prison officers, damaged CCTV cameras and stripped down to his underwear. Horner survived on the roof in a makeshift wooden shelter with some provisions passed to him by other prisoners.

Meanwhile, Rob Young, current acting governor of HM Prison Manchester, admitted that prisoners were not being let out of their cells regularly on occasion due to lack of staff at the time.

Asked about conditions in the prison at the time, he said: “At the time we had staff issues, which meant time out of prison had to be reduced.”

Prosecutor Bob Elias said there was no doubt Horner “smashed the prison up”.

He said: “Prison is not meant to be a picnic. Prisoners may bitterly resent changes to their everyday routine, but trashing the prison by breaking glass windows on the roof, causing damage doesn’t help – it eats into prison budgets.”

The case continues.

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