Say It Like It Is: The Sun and Last Year’s Prison Riots

On 16th December last year, rioting broke out in HMP Birmingham. The incident, ‘which lasted for more than 12 hours’, is one of a spate of riots in other prisons across the country, with similar disruption occurring at HMP Swaleside on 22/12/16 and HMP Bedford last November.[1] Amongst a fairly balanced assessment of these events across all other major news publications, The Sun’s sensationalist coverage of disorder in UK prisons in December last year encourages popular support for a failing and needlessly punitive prison estate, perpetuating grave inadequacies in our justice system. Such reportage achieves this by extricating the Ministry of Justice of blame for prison disorder and unfairly vilifying the prison population. 

Reporting on riot at HMP Birmingham, The Sun described the prison as ‘LOUT OF CONTROL’, referring to rioting prisoners as ‘tooled-up lags’.[2] The same The Sun headline flippantly states that the riot took place because of a ‘broken telly’.[3]

By focusing solely on the immediate causes of this riot and using pejorative terms such as ‘lout’ and ‘lag’, The Sun have presented their readership with a grave misunderstanding of the deeper-lying causes of last December’s disorder. Instead of putting the riot down to the mindless violence of ‘louts’ angry about a ‘broken telly’, The Sun should investigate the chronic underfunding and overcrowding of UK prisons, which is widely known to be the root cause of the riots. Due to lack of staff and rocketing prison numbers, prisoners have little opportunity to engage in meaningful activity such as academic study or training during their sentences, with many locked in overpopulated cells for 23 hours a day. In The Telegraph, Diane Abbott went so far as to say that such conditions made such rioting inevitable, describing the British prison system as ‘a timebomb’.[4]

Such irresponsible journalism fuels misconceptions of UK’s prisons and prisoners to the public. Despite a brief mention of understaffing and the very end of the article, one need look no further than the comments section to see the pernicious effects of how The Sun has framed the riot, with some readers calling for a return of the death penalty and deeming the UK’s prisons ‘holiday camps’.[5]

This climate of hostility towards prisoners generated by sensationalist journalism serves to fuel the political will to lock more and more people up in understaffed UK prisons, as well as garnering public support for a more punitive criminal justice system. Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, has dubbed UK prison policy a longstanding ‘authoritarian arms race’ between Labour and Conservatives; each party trying, until Chakrabarti’s statement, to be “tougher” on crime than the other.[6] This shift toward a punitive prison system in recent decades has seen the prison population increase beyond the means of its facilities and has made prisons unsafe, with rates of violence towards prison staff, prisoners and suicides high and rising. These effects bring about the most salient causes of rioting.

The power of “fake news” to shape public opinion in the US presidential election has shown us that the need for responsible and measured journalism has never been greater. It is high time that the public learned the unadulterated truth about the state of the country’s prisons. A better-informed public would work to put an end to the shameful conditions that precipitated these riots instead of encouraging punitive justice policies.

William Farmer studies MA Conflict, Security and Development at KCL. He writes about criminal justice policy and African politics.




[3] Ibid.




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