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Stephanie de Leng: Life in Strangeways

City photographer gets access to high security jail. Now the pictures

Written by . Published on May 12th 2011.


Stephanie de Leng: Life in Strangeways
IT's been 21 years since the Strangeways Prison riot, the 26-day rooftop protest that changed the face of the prison system.
“You never know who has done what, and you never would ask.  Violence is in every man and woman, given the right - or wrong - set of circumstances. You are acultely aware of how it could easily be you."
The events of April 1990 resulted in the partial destruction of old Victorian wings and the injury of 147 prison officers and 47 prisoners.
The disturbance inspired copycat riots at  other prisons. A five-month public enquiry followed, resulting in The Woolf Report which served as an ongoing blueprint for the reform of the prison system.

The original Victorian structure remains at the core of the Manchester prison, although a £80 million modernisation programme, carried out between 1990 and 1994, has transformed it from its pre-riot days. 

Now there's a highly emotive  ITV1 documentary series on the prison, the first time since 1990 that a film crew has been allowed into Strangeways, now renamed HMP Manchester.

Stephanie de Leng, a regular Liverpool Confidential photographer, has also been allowed in, part of a governor's commission to document the prison. 

Now she is presenting phase one - a study of its staff - in an exhibition which in the wrong hands might have been titled News of the Screws, but isn’t.

It one of many going under the umbrella of Look11, the International Photography Symposium that began recently in Liverpool.

Strangeways 1.jpeg

Somewhat fittingly, her Strangeways show is under lock and key – insofar that if you want to see it, you have to ring up the people at the Baltic Creative HQ (where the works are hanging) make an appointment and get them to buzz you in - contact details below. 

Since 1990, HMP Manchester has developed into a 'High Performing Prison' and a High Security Prison holding some of the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners in the country. It has been widely recognised for implementing ground-breaking changes in prisoner care and re-settlement programmes. 

The prison today centres on providing a safe and decent environment for all prisoners -  a regime a world away from that which caused the longest prisoner protest in British penal history. 

Stephanie said: “All the staff, the inmates I worked with (for a later phase on the project) were open, friendly and willing to be photographed, and I did learn a lot there.

“I was surprised that I was not judgemental.  You never know who has done what, and you never would ask.  Violence is in every man and woman, given the right - or wrong - set of circumstances. You are acultely aware of how it could easily be you."

But, despite the facility housing some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK, she says: "I never felt under threat at any time. The relationship between the officers and the inmates is, on the face of it, good, with lots of banter. 

"But security is tight. Every door is locked behind you. State-of-the-art locks, locks and more locks - which, of course, I was not allowed to photograph. Paradoxically, the prison has an open cell policy. Some inmates ask to be locked in their cells for a bit of privacy. Yet they must eat all their meals alone in their cells. There are no more communal dining areas." 

Stephanie pauses and adds: "Despite all the reforms, anyone who thinks prisons have gone soft should take a look.  This is not a place you would want to be." 

Profile and address
Stephanie was born in Atlanta, USA, and educated in London and Hamburg. Her interest in photography began while working for ten years on the other side of the camera as a fashion model. After marrying, having two children, and settling in Liverpool, she began working as a portrait photographer in 1989.  

She has received a number of photography awards, including a 'Women In Photography International Award' in 2004. 

She has recently completed The Secret Life of Smithdown Road project which will be displayed along with many other of her portraits in the soon to be opened Museum of Liverpool.

The exhibition is by appointment only. The Baltic Creative Centre, 22 Jordan Street, Liverpool, Merseyside, L1 0BW, UK. 0151 703 2005.

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Norman Stanley FletcherMay 12th 2011.

That is a stunning image with the dog. The Look11 festival is a wonderful addition to the city's culture - and Sound City next week too.

Maggie Cross shared this on Facebook on May 14th 2011.
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