During the first lockdown in March 2020, prisoners at HMP Manchester were offered the opportunity to write down their reflections as part of a creative writing competition – and have their work judged by real authors. The results offer extraordinary insight into the minds of inmates during the onset of COVID-19.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television screens last March staring solemnly down the lens and warning us not to leave our homes, it should have been shocking enough to send cups of tea spilling across living rooms right around the UK.
But as gloomy and demoralising as the broadcast might have been, it was not a surprising one.
By this point, most of us knew it was coming.
That infamous public address on March 23 had – just like COVID’s symptoms and knock-on effects – crept up on us in sinisterly steady fashion.
For weeks, we read headlines about the increasing spread of the virus and watched many of our European neighbours bolting their own gates shut. So, when the decision was made to officially lock down in the UK, many of us had already mentally prepared ourselves for the worst.
For many in Manchester, the preamble to the address had involved messaging loved ones and setting up home working stations. But over in Cheetham Hill, there were 650 people behind bars still struggling to comprehend exactly what was happening.
HMP Manchester’s inmates – concealed from view of the deserted city centre streets – had relied on TV sets as their sole window into the real world. But despite the drama unfolding on the news channels, they still felt once removed from the pictures being shown on the screens inside their cells.
It wasn’t until the morning of March 23 when officers told prisoners to “check their phones” that the seriousness of the situation sunk in.
After punching in their access codes, they realised something. Their call credit had increased.
Prisoners could read between the lines. This was a full-scale lockdown.
For those who have never set foot inside a maximum security facility, HMP Manchester has an otherworldly aura; epitomised by its towering walls and fortress-like architecture.
Portraits of prison life – on camera or in print – can often feel like they belong to another realm. And this is exactly what made the onset of COVID such an unsettling time for its inhabitants.
As one prisoner’s grave confession at the start of the first lockdown testified: “I fear people are going to forget about us and we’re going to die because we’re bottom of the pile.”
But when the pandemic hit, inmates at Manchester were actually presented with a unique chance to share their stories through art. And now this material is set for publication.
The booklet, titled Write Inside At HMP Manchester, is a compendium of astonishing reflections written by those incarcerated during COVID, ranging from real contemplations on an unravelling pandemic to fictitious worlds created out of a desire for a form of escapism.
Put together by MK College and curated by HMP Manchester’s Distance Learning Coordinator Maureen Carnighan, the project began life as a simple writing exercise to keep prisoners preoccupied.
But it quickly snowballed into a creative writing competition, with a panel of published authors – including Jonathan Aitken, David Nolan, Joseph Knox and Erwin James – stepping in to judge the work and offer feedback.
Aitken and James had previously served sentences themselves, whereas Nolan has produced extensive coverage of the Strangeways Riots throughout his career.
The submissions – which include diaries, stories, poems and illustrations – were originally scrawled on scrap paper and the backs of envelopes by prisoners at the height of the pandemic, before being collected and cobbled together to form an anthology.
It’s set to go to print later this year; with all money raised going towards the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
After the writing competition ended, entries were judged and a prize was split between the winners. But a little bump to the prison bank balance was just a bonus. According to organiser Maureen, what was most important to inmates was the fact their stories were actually being read by others.
Nolan, Knox, Aitken and James added comments to every entry, and as Maureen passed on the feedback to inmates, she could hear their self-esteem “growing over the phone”.
“The fact that real authors read their work – they were amazed by it,” Maureen explains.
“All the stories [in the booklet] are so different. Some of the fiction is amazing.
“But there are some surprises, too. There’s even some soppy poetry in there!”
Many of the most affecting pieces within the collection are the ones that pull readers inside Strangeways to share a cell with the authors.
One such article, entitled ‘COVID Diary’, paints an eerie picture of a cell block on the morning of lockdown where you could “hear a pin drop” – before going on to tell the tale of inmates scrambling to check their phone credit.
As the story ebbs on, the author expresses his concern for his fellow inmates.
“I’ve done many, many lockdowns,” he writes, having been in and out of prison for almost three decades.
“[But] this is the first time there has been a lockdown like this.
“Only urgent health care appointments, no dentists, no work, and up to twenty-three hours banged up unless you are a servery worker or cleaner. I honestly feel for all those lads and girls who I think are ‘suffering in silence behind that door.’”
Another prisoner also describes the stress levels in prison as being so high that the wing is “crackling as if it’s charged with static”, with a lack of routine akin to having his “body vigorously rubbed with a cheese grater.”
The collection also features a haunting short story penned by an inmate who was among the first to become infected.
He recalls curling up around the toilet bowl, a big warning sticker being slapped on his cell, and guards dressed head to toe in quarantine suits bellowing at him to “stand back” so they could safely drop off food.
“Shivering in my bed, thoughts ran through my head,” he writes.
“What if I don’t wake up? The thought of dying in prison was so scary.”
But not all prisoners felt compelled to write about COVID. Others seized the opportunity to pen letters to their former selves, whilst one inmate – sentenced for 28 years for gang-related murder – scribbled a painful and emotional apology to his mother for everything he’s done.
According to Maureen, the writing casts the inmates in a whole different light.
“We tend to ‘monster’ everyone that goes to prison,” she says.
“But these people do come out [of jail]. It’s our job to re-educate and support them whilst they’re inside to reduce the chances of them reoffending.
“Here, in this writing, they come across as real human beings who have made very real mistakes.”
All prisons offer a core education curriculum covering English, maths, digital skills and relevant vocational training – which all inmates who would benefit are encouraged to attend.
But enrolling in higher education courses (e.g. university level) involves meeting certain criteria. Permission from the prison itself is required before applying for funding from the Prisoners’ Educational Trust and for individual courses. Proximity to release date is also taken into consideration.
What made Maureen’s writing competition so unique and appealing was that it was open to all inmates immediately, at no cost.
When word got around, the uptake was big.
Even once the initial exercise was over, the Distance Learning Coordinator said she was “overwhelmed” with additional requests from prisoners – many of whom thrived on the experience and expressed a desire to keep learning whilst locked up for long portions of the day.
Educational in-cell packs have also been introduced at HMP Manchester in the absence of face-to-face education – covering subjects such as maths, English, business, art and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages).
Write Inside At HMP Manchester – a time capsule and window into Strangeways during an aberrant moment in history – is set for release at a pertinent point in the pandemic; with the whole penal system once again in lockdown.
Interventional measures have prevented the numbers climbing higher. But this has meant more time in cells, with prisoners spending the past few weeks reliving the experiences they wrote about last spring.
Most in-person social visits have also been banned since the beginning of the second lockdown in November – with inmates instead meeting loved ones via ‘Purple Visits’; the prison equivalent of video calls (at HMP Manchester, a phone has been fitted in every cell so that support staff can speak to prisoners, with the Education Department using them to provide feedback for in-cell study packs).
Conditions have been tough – and in December one retired judge even suggested sentences of inmates should be reduced in order to compensate.
Still, there is cause for optimism across the penal system in the weeks ahead.
Cases of COVID-19 among inmates and staff have been steadily declining since the end of January.
The situation is improving, and there is cautious hope that a tough chapter for UK prisons is slowly coming to a close.
“Prisons are not the holiday camps that the public sometimes believe them to be,” Maureen states.
“They are difficult environments made more severe during lockdown for obvious reasons.
“Some of the men I come across are so keen to get educated and so determined to change their lives around.
“But having the opportunity to write and tell their story? That’s definitely helped them.”
Write Inside At HMP Manchester is being published in the prison print shop and sold in support of the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
Details on how to purchase copies are available online.
Affleck’s: the Manchester marketplace that’s a treasure trove for independent gifts
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. There’s nowhere quite like Affleck’s. A fixture in Manchester for forty years now, many argue that the Northern Quarter simply would not be what it is today without it.We’re inclined to agree.
Inside, you’ll find groups from all generations browsing its myriad stalls, each floor jam-packed with unique pieces. Stall holders here sell everything from vintage fashion and skatewear, to homeware, plants, trinkets, action figurines, personalised t-shirts and jewellery – and that’s just for starters.
There’s also tarot reading, a crystal shop, an ice cream parlour, and a homely top-floor cafe selling retro favourites, a record store, nail salon, piercing and tattoo studios, the Animaid cafe, CBD store, seamoss shop and so much more to discover.
If we’re being honest, no list can really do what is on offer justice. Affleck’s isn’t just home to everything you can think of, its walls also conceal a million brilliant gifts that may never have crossed your mind had you not paid it a visit.
The best way to discover Affleck’s is simply to turn up with time to spare and dedicate a few hours to wandering its halls. If you don’t feel like you have the time for that, though, rest easy, because we have gone and done it for you.
We’ve browsed every stall, spoken to the traders, ummed and erred, and looked for the best prices (you know, cost of living and all that). Suffice it to say, we found some absolute gems – and managed to get all of our Christmas presents from local makers for under £100. Not too shabby.
Keep reading to discover a few of our top picks for independent Christmas shopping at Affleck’s in Manchester this December.
Lock Stock and Smokin Art Shop
A new addition to Affleck’s top floor, Lock Stock and Smokin Art Shop specialises in unique homeware with a quirky collection of bright pieces created by independent artists.
Here, you’ll find a collection of super cool Kit Cat clocks imported especially from America, alongside pieces by Stockport-based artist Neighbourhood Threat, ranging from cushions and tea towels to dad socks, coasters and more. We picked up a gorgeous mug but were captivated by a 70s-inspired Babycham cushion (and think we’ll be going back soon for it).
City and Bloom
Another new addition to Affleck’s, situated next door to Lock Stock, is City and Bloom. Promoting sustainable, design-led urban gardening, it’s run by the very knowledgeable James who has a background in horticulture.
This teeny tiny plant store manages to cram a lot into a very small space, find hand-painted plant pots created in collaboration with local artists like Alice Needham-Pearmain, adorable flower presses, nature books, different potting mixtures and more.
This is one place in Affleck’s we can’t help returning to again and again. First begun as a hobby by its Middleton-based owners back in 2017, today Mad for Art can be found on the first floor of Affleck’s.
The store sells a whole host of vintage prints, ranging from vintage films and pin-ups to iconic old Vogue covers, adverts for Guinness, Martini, Campari and luxury perfumes, plus images of music legends, classic cars, food, travel and more.
Another newcomer to Affleck’s, this family-run Manchester apparel brand takes its inspiration from punk-rock culture. Featuring a host of clothing designs created in-house, it has taken over the old American sweet shop on the second floor. One to check out for any friends who like the alt, skater, or punk look, Modern Streets also sells stickers, patches and cool, alternative colouring books.
Inspired Life CBD
CBD seems like it’s everywhere now, but if you’re looking for the best quality products on the market Inspired Life CBD on the first floor of Affleck’s is a shout.
Selling 100% organic, natural products, you can find everything from tea and chocolate to CBD-infused massage oil here – with a friendly owner on hand to explain all the nuances of each product in detail. Great for easing stress, anxiety and better sleep, it’s an all-natural remedy (and yes, it’s made from Cannabis but it’s won’t get you high).
Vinyl Resting Place
The home of all things vinyl at Affleck’s, whether you’re looking for rare 7″, old LPs or some bootleg remixes of your favourite track, this is the place to hunt for it. Everything in the store is pre-loved and has been hand-picked by its owners over the course of 15 years.
We spent quite a decent amount of time scouring the folk section, which is extensive, but all genres are covered here – from rock and pop, to hip-hop, house, techno, americana, low-fi, gospel, soul, funk and everything in between. There’s also a big rack of CDs to get stuck into.
One of the first shops you’ll enter on your way in, Luna has it all for the last-minute Christmas shopping dash. Mugs, beanies, jewellery, patches, accessories, you name it – it’s here.
There’s some cool stuff to choose from, but the team here is really known for their pin badges, all of which are made in-house.
Feature image – Supplied
A super-secret look inside GCHQ’s Manc spy headquarters
The Manc recently had the privilege of looking around GCHQ’s Manchester headquarters to meet the real-world spies, data analysts and security experts keeping us all safe. It was awesome.
For anyone unaware, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the British intelligence agency that helps look after our nation’s security both at home and abroad, and back in 2019, the national security organisation set up its Manchester base in Heron House just off Albert Square.
Just last month, we were invited along to meet some of these silent heroes in person as part of a private and unprecedented press day, opening up their doors to select members of the public for the first time.
Invited inside the high-security facility along with around 60 kids from Whalley Range‘s St Margaret’s Primary School, we spent the day cracking codes, being upstaged by children much smarter than us and trying not to sweat through our clothes from nervousness.
Welcome to Manc spy HQ
After being escorted through a strict entry procedure and chaperoned upstairs to the only floor we were allowed on, we were met by an admittedly unsuspecting team of people that you would never twig as working in espionage. It quickly put us at ease.
We’re not joking when we say there were areas of this place we weren’t allowed anywhere near and even staff members have to their leave belongings behind before entering. However, what we did get to see was seriously impressive.
As well as immediate sights like the small drones being controlled by employees who could only give us their first names, we were also welcomed into a large briefing room with a high-tech display with screens that stretched across an entire wall and genuinely resembled something from a Bond flick.
We then did our best to keep up with some of Britain’s brightest young brains, working through a series of code-cracking exercises inspired by the GCHQ’s new Puzzles for Spies book.
Making moves in Manchester
So why Manchester? Well, we spoke to Deputy Director Liz (yes, that’s all you’re getting) and she explained numerous appealing factors that drew the over-100-year-old institution to the city.
First off, they noted that not only is Manchester one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK and, indeed Europe, but thanks to city centre development and the likes of the ever-expanding Media City, Manchester has become a true “digital hub”.
She also went on to state the roadmap for people joining the intelligence service is starting to change and while people used to join the likes of their Cheltenham HQ “at the age of 18 and stay for 40 years”, the demographic is changing and they want to seek out more diversity.
Part of the reason they invited the kids along is they wanted to show it’s more about “aptitude and skills, not just getting a degree”. It’s not just about reaching out further but adapting the recruitment process.
They also believe that as well as the uni and tech culture acting as a great feeder for GCHQ, the fact that Manchester is a huge melting pot of people from all walks of life will help them “evolve” as a group and they hope to start soaking up “untapped talent all across the North West“.
What’s it like being a spy?
It’s a question most people have wondered at one time or another — usually after a trip to the cinema or watching Line of Duty— but we wanted to know exactly how close to the movies working for GCHQ is and, thankfully, many of the people were more than happy to oblige.
Although most said being somewhat evasive becomes second nature when once you accept the job, it really is only your immediate family that you can reveal their roles to and even then, they can’t really divulge what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Again, it’s worth reminding that, for all intents and purposes, these lot are spies and they genuinely have to keep up the lie. We especially enjoyed so many of them simply telling their friends they “work in marketing”.
On the other hand, despite having to withhold details even between certain colleagues with different clearance levels, Liz insists that they “don’t tend to moan about the nuts and bolts” of the job but things like the commute and how the price of Greggs keeps going up. Their office is above Greggs, for context.
She also admitted it’s “pretty exciting” to be able to do things that would be considered illegal for most people to do, not to mention immensely cool to be able to tell your kids “mums a spy”. Fair.
What are GCHQ working on right now?
Beyond trying to reveal “the human side” behind these otherwise faceless people, demystifying espionage and intelligence work, as well as trying to earn some trust through increased transparency, GCHQ also gave some insight as to what exactly it is they’re looking into at present.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about national security without asking them about Putin and the Russian invasion, which they confirmed is obviously top of the priority list, declaring the support of Ukraine as their “biggest task at the moment”.
They also went on to explain that cyberattacks from the likes of China are also of concern, adding that they are carrying out counter-terrorism, software development and sweeps, as well as various routine security checks on a regular basis.
Liz also went on to assure that GCHQ as a whole is “working on all the missions, covering all the hostile states and pretty much covering everything you can think of”. It was genuinely a relief to know that we’re in safe hands.
If you think a career at GCHQ Manchester might be something you’re interested in, you can check out their vacancies down below and you also can also buy their Puzzles for Spies book HERE.