Closing Holloway Prison will leave vulnerable women out in the cold

The government's 'prison revolution' will benefit neither women nor Londoners


When the closure of the largest female prison in Europe was announced, it was greeted with hope.

In recent months, the government has outlined a ‘prison building revolution’, where old Dickensian prisons will be closed, the land will be sold to create more inner city housing, and nine new ‘humane’ and modern prisons will be built in their place.

On the surface, these reforms, which commence in July with the closure of HMP Holloway, are being publically framed as providing both better opportunities to women in prison, and affordable housing for the people of London.

However, as time has passed from the announcement of Holloway’s closure to the cranes now ready for demolition, there is little evidence to suggest we are embarking on a new model of women’s imprisonment after all.

The Reclaim Justice Network (RJN) believes the government’s claims are fallacies, and the real focus of the reforms are to sell off state assets and public land, privatisation, and expansion of the criminal justice system.

First, communities can have the opportunity to explore their relationships with prisons, their expectations of them, and to consider whether we are pacified by assurances that women will be housed ‘more humanely’ in new, modern prisons.

Second, with insufficient social housing being built alongside London’s increasing population, what does the community want to do with the publically owned Islington land being sold from underneath them and the Holloway site itself?

Under the 2013 Women’s Estate Review, Holloway became a resettlement prison, where a woman could receive the appropriate support throughout her entire sentence, and was linked back into her local community on release.

As a result, more women were released on temporary licence (ROTL), more local support services and organisations engaged with women, multi-skilled staff teams were employed and developed inter-agency relationships within the prison, while specialist provisions for multiple needs increased.

Holloway became a London prison for London women, where they could serve their whole sentences close to family and community ties. London women who were resident in Holloway are now being dispersed around the UK to other female prisons, but largely to HMP Bronzefield, Downview & Send.

To maintain solid family links, families are expected to have the time, money and robustness to navigate London transport systems. At the same time as Holloway’s closure was announced, it had just received one of its best prisons inspectorate reports in decades.

It is important to remember that for women with highly complex mental health needs, Holloway provided a particular type of space in the female estate, including a Care and Separation unit. With the closure of Holloway, whether you believe prisons are the appropriate sites for such support or not, these ‘beds’ will no longer exist in the system.

The Women’s Estate Review also recommended that on the basis of its location, HMP Downview should be re-rolled back to a female prison. HMP Downview, a ‘humane’ prison, has an embedded culture of prison officers ‘trading’ ROTL for sex. HMP Bronzefield, a newly purpose built ‘humane’ female prison, recorded higher rates of self-harm, reoffending and cost per place than Holloway.

At Bronzefield, women are now doubled up in their cells to accommodate the influx of women coming from London courts.

Meanwhile, the government has recently announced that despite their reform rhetoric, there are no plans to reduce the female or general prison population. And the serious consequences of a lack of housing for women in need, especially vulnerable women leaving prison, has been ignored.

At a time when women are given sleeping bags and tents as they are released from Bronzefield, the government press forward with the promotion of ‘starter homes’ at £450,000, Right to Buy in housing associations and private sector redevelopment schemes.

The closure of Holloway appears to be neither for the benefit of women or Londoners. However, it can be used as an opportunity to frame a new conversation around imprisonment, social justice and social housing.

Maureen Mansfield and Hannah Pittaway are members of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group.

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

9 Responses to “Closing Holloway Prison will leave vulnerable women out in the cold”

  1. Rob

    “Holloway became a London prison for London women, where they could serve their whole sentences close to family and community ties. London women who were resident in Holloway are now being dispersed around the UK to other female prisons, but largely to HMP Bronzefield, Downview & Send.”

    For the benefit of LabourList readers unfamiliar with prison geography, it might be worth pointing out that Bronzefield and Downview are – contrary to the impression given by this sentence – both in London.

  2. Rebecca Roberts

    There is a public meeting tonight (19/04/2016) in Islington to discuss the implications of the Holloway prison closure & the launch of the Reclaim Holloway! campaign.
    VENUE: Unity Hall (by the fire station), 277A Upper Street, Islington, N1 2TZ on 7.00pm – 8.30pm.

  3. Hannah

    Thanks for reading the article Rob, it’s true not everyone is familiar with prison geography.

    While Downview & Bronzefield are on the outskirts of London – they are not in London. All three prisons mentioned are in Surrey. Downview & Bronzefield are 20 miles away from HMP Holloway. Downview is just over the boundary for Sutton, the probation staff based there are from Surrey & Sussex NPS. Surrey NHS commissions healthcare in all three prisons. Neither prisons are under any Greater London Borough.

  4. Claire

    In response to Rob:

    HMP Bronzefield is not in London, it’s in Surrey, approximately 30 miles away from HMP Holloway. London is big and boundaries blur, but it’s not London and is not considered to be. It take about 90 minutes (in good traffic) to get there by car or the same by pubic transport. Taking public transport requires at least three changes of transport plus about a 20 minute walk.

    Similarly, HMP Downview is also in Surrey, which is still not London. Yes, it’s about 8 miles close to Holloway as the crow flies, but it still takes about 90 minutes to get to it.

    Please let me know if you would like a map to demonstrate this more clearly.

  5. Ian Ross

    I recall my first visit to HMP Holloway in 1999 to discuss the possible introduction of our anti reoffending workshops on E Wing. What struck me on entering was the relentless noise and screaming that seemed to interrupt almost every sentence uttered. There was an air of hopelessness that existed throughout the prison, something I have never witnessed elsewhere. I recall leaving, standing in the car park and taking in huge gulps of fresh air. I could not believe that women were being kept in such conditions in the then late 20th century in a so-called civil society. It’s rerolling in 2013 to a resettlement prison was long overdue. However, i fear that HMP Holloway’s fate is more down to transforming property rather than transforming resettlement. Time will tell.

  6. Alastair Macdonald

    I think this is a tragedy for both the prison service and women prisoners from London. Having spent over 20 years of my carreer at Holloway I felt it did a lot of good woork. Being in cenral London I felt it served the needs of London prisoners well. I think all the staff, officers, teachers and medical staff worked together to make a great environement where troubled women could rebuild their lives. I feel that the government’s decision is based on the value of land in inner London rather than any broader view. It reminds me of the closure of the mental hospitals such as Fien Barnet when the sites were worth millions but the mentally ill were left to rave in the streets. Alastair MacDonald

  7. Carey Ostrer

    Of course the Gvt wants the land – a sizeable area in Islington – worth a fortune in this cruel and damaging housing bubble market…any social housing planned? – Women are held on average, 60 miles away from their home or court address. At HMP Send women’s prison the average is 76 miles; at Askham Grange the average distance from home is 78 miles; for Drake Hall it is 83 miles; and East Sutton Park 91 miles. At Low Newton a third of the women were over 100 miles from their homes. In Eastwood Park prison, where many of the women sent to prison by courts in Wales are sent, 20% of women are over 150 miles from home.¹ Do we all know that the greatest number of women imprisoned are sentenced to less than 6 months for financial offences – like shoplifting, benefit fraud and 82% of women are imprisoned not for violent crimes. But there is a high re-offending rate. Too many have dependent children and too many are homeless on arrest and report as homeless shortly after release… I think the biggest story here is that most of the female prison population should not be in prison but in community programmes, with access to safe housing and support tailored to helping them not to re-offend.

  8. Alison

    I’ve spent time as an inmate at Holloway, Bronzefield and Downview and can safely say that out of all of them Holloway was the worst and the most dysfunctional out of all of the prisons. The accommodation was awful compared to Bronzefield and Downview, the surroundings are worse, the education dept and work opportunities are worse. The food was worse. The staff (bar a small minority) were worse die to a really shitty attitude which came down from management which was downright nasty. The regime was worse. Solving any issues was impossible compared to Bronzefield or Downview. Yes Bronzefield and Downview are on the outskirts of London but both are easily accessible by public transport. And as for Bronzefield resident being doubled up it will soon ease. When Downview closed in 2013 and many of us ended up at Holloway we were dumped into dorms of 5 people which was excruciating and we would have all been happy to have been in a double. But within 4 months the accommodation pressures had eased considerably and this will happen at Bronzefield in the same time frame. Holloway needs to close as its simply not fit for purpose. Whilst neither Bronzefield or Downview are perfect prisons both, particularly Downv.iew is a hell of a lot better than Holloway would ever be

  9. jane

    Glad Holloway is closing. It is an awful place not fit for human habitation. When i arrived they took my mobile phone off me so i could not get in contact with anyone to let them know where i was. When i first arrived i wanted to speak to the officer on the landing but i was told to go to my cell. Whenever i needed to speak to someone about things the staff always seemed to be too busy.when i first arrived i was put in a room on my own when i am not used to being on my own. Two days later they moved me to a dorm which was better., then another dorm, then they split us up and moved me to a tiny room with bunkbeds and expected me to sleep on the top!well i am not a child i am a grown woman used to sleeping in a double bed. Then they moved me to another tiny room with bunk beds where i had the bottom bunk. Then the girl moved out of there to a dorm which was what i wanted and I was left in a room on my own which is not what I am not used to. Then the heating packed up and I was left on my own in a freezing cold room. This place is enough to make you mentally ill. Instead making you better it just makes you feel worse. I have never been to a place where I felt such low self esteem.i used to think the dogs in battersea dogs home were probably treated better. I also had stuff stolen from my locked combination locker which none of the staff seemed to be bothered about.
    Thought I was in a third world country. There was mould and rust in the showers…only 2 pieces of toast for breakfast when I am used to having a cooked English breakfast. I was in there on remand for a crime I didn’t even commit! I don’t think woman on remand should be put in prison with convicted criminals, it is very scary. Although some of the woman in there were in there for nonviolent crimes ie shoplifting, benefit fraud etc. At times it seemed more like a girls boarding school, with gym and art classes and being locked in rooms at 7pm. The whole time I was in there I asked for help with housing so I had somewhere to go on release, but I received no help at all in finding accommodation. When I was released i was sent out on my own with two heavy bags.and no one to help me carry them. I wanted to be released when the hub was open, so I could get my phone back and get in touch with family and friends but they released me at 8pm in the evening when it was closed. I would have rather spent another night there and gone to hub in the morning to get in touch with everyone.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.