Strangeways: A spell inside
Being confined within four walls alongside some of the region’s most notorious criminals is a daunting thought in itself, but is Manchester Prison – formerly known as Strangeway’s - as bad as its reputation? Bryony Pearce speaks to a former inmate who had a few months inside to find out.
NIALL Nixon endured a two month stint inside ‘Strangeways’. Compared to many detained there at her majesty’s pleasure, it was a relatively short period, but time enough to witness suicides and violence that included his suffering a broken jaw.
He was admitted to the prison on three counts; taking without owners consent, dangerous driving, and failing to stop for the police. Other offences have included threatening behaviour with an offensive weapon (an axe) and possession of stolen goods.
On paper, the 23-year-old had undoubtedly racked up some grim crimes, but the shy, gaunt man before me spoke otherwise.
A vulnerable, trepid man to the eye, Niall described his sinister experience inside as “lonely, scary and unpredictable.”
Enclosed in a six by eight foot cell for 22 hours a day is a disheartening prospect, but knowing that category A prisoners loomed just metres away resulted in 60 days of fear.
To begin with, Niall was placed in an induction wing where he and other inmates would get settled in and adjust to prison life, but this soon changed: “After the induction, I got put into a ‘big boy’ wing which was full of rapists and murderers.” he explains.
“It wasn’t easy. It’s hard having to share a cell with a rapist.
“With my father being a police officer, he actually put away the rapist I was originally in a cell with, so he had to be moved prisons straight away for my safety.”
With all means of freedom diminished, Niall revealed what an average day inside would consist of.
“I’d get up, have a shower, have some cereal, and then just watch Top Gear and Jeremy Kyle on television.
“We were only allowed out of our cell for two hours a day so I’d just read through letters, read books, watch TV, and do push-ups on the sink in my cell to pass the rest of the time by.”
Despite the severe lack of space, it appeared that inmates were granted with a reasonable number of amenities.
“I had a TV in my cell, but what you watched depended on what your cell mate wanted to watch as well, so that could cause arguments,” recalls Niall.
“I got soap too, and a razor with one blade. It took ages to shave though and you always ended up cutting yourself too.
“Not many people did, but I used the library in there as well to try and get a bit of education. The library was a good place just to keep yourself to yourself, get your head down and not mingle, as well as educationally keeping yourself in the loop a bit too.”
Five weeks into his prison stretch, Niall found himself on the wrong end of some gang violence, which resulted in him being knocked unconscious, and diagnosed with a broken jaw.
“I just stood up for myself basically,” he says.
“Now I realise though, that no matter what it’s just best to walk away in those situations, because it doesn’t matter if you can defend yourself, you’re in ‘their’ prison.
“It was a lad who ran his wing so to speak that I got into conflict with, and to him I was in ‘his’ house. In his eyes I was disrespecting him in front of his mates by standing up for myself, and he didn’t like that.
“He didn’t actually hit me though, he told one of the officers that I had a bladed article in my cell, which is like a prison knife, so they did a cell search and found it, and then I got put on something called a basic wing. They took all my luxuries away from me, all my clothes and everything, I was just in a cell basically, with even less stuff to do to pass my days by.
“Within an hour of being in that wing one of the guy’s friends ran over and smacked me. It knocked me spark out and I ended up in hospital because it had broken my jaw too. Once I was out of hospital I was put onto a protection wing, which is where you’re among pedophiles and sex offenders, lots of horrible people.”
With vast amounts of time to himself, Niall learned early on that friends in prison weren’t really an option.
“I got close to a few of my cell mates, but a few of them that I got close to took advantage of me, so it’s a bit ruthless, every man for himself I guess.”
Manchester Prison has been host to several notable inmates over the years, including Moors murderer Ian Brady, Mark Bridger, for the suspected abduction and murder of April Jones, and Harold Shipman, one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history.
Niall came out with some horror stories of his own.
“To hear some of the stories and knowing that I was in the same building as those kind of people was terrifying if I’m honest. I know the crimes I committed were wrong, but the stuff I would hear in there was just on a whole different level, sickening really.”
Strangeway’s has been noted as a high suicide rate prison for some years now, an issue that effectively gave Niall his most gruesome memory:
“When I was on the wing and the officers were locking all the cells, you’d hear people shouting ‘swinger,’ which means there’s someone hanging in their cell from a noose. I heard that twice in two months.”
December 18, 2012 is a vivid and significant date in Niall’s life now. It was the day he was released.
Reliving the moment he found out he would be leaving prison, Niall reminisces: “I was over the moon. It was weird though, being on the outside again, and it took a while to get used to. It was like being born again.”
Since leaving prison, Niall has got himself settled in his own home, with ambitions to return abroad to a company he has previously worked for.
“Housing has helped me get a place to live. There were problems at home that didn’t make me do what I did, but led to me committing those crimes, so they helped me look for a new house so that I have somewhere to keep my head down.
“Because I’m on a 12 month order it means I can’t really leave the country which is a bit annoying because I want to go back to Italy as soon as I can. I’m currently trying to work my way round that by speaking to the judges and seeing if they can be a bit lenient with me.”
Two months down the line, looking back at his momentous term in prison, Niall now admits: “At first I wasn’t really concentrating. I didn’t think I’d end up in Strangeway’s until I actually got there. I didn’t have my head straight at the time and just wasn’t aware of the consequences.
“I’ll always remember my time there, but it’s nothing to be proud of. When I have children it will be something I will want to keep a secret from them.”
So, is Manchester Prison all it’s made out to be?
“I know it’s supposed to be one of the roughest prisons in England, but to be honest with you I think it’s a bit soft, you’re getting looked after and given a TV,” says Niall.
“It’s just the people that you’re mixing with that make it horrible really, not the prison itself.”
*The individual’s name has been changed for their personal protection and safety.
By Bryony Pearce