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Why the old Holloway Prison in north London should become a new women's building

This former site of state violence against women must be reclaimed – for the collective good.

Holloway Prison Holloway Prison. PA/Jonathan Brady. All Rights Reserved.

Holloway prison in Islington, north London, first opened in 1852. At the time, it was the largest women's prison in Western Europe, as well as the first female-only local prison in the UK.

When it closed last year – more than 160 years after first opening – this could have marked recognition, finally, of the damaging knock-effects on entire communities when women are incarcerated. 

Instead, its 600 inmates were rushed to the overcrowded and unprepared Downview and Bronzefield prisons in Surrey, an hour and a half away. In the process, women were moved away from their communities, families and support networks, including their children. 

Across the UK, two-thirds of imprisoned women are mothers. An estimated 81% are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. At Holloway, a majority were on remand or sentenced for minor offences.

Ten years ago, Baroness Jean Corston’s landmark 2007 report called for reforms to tackle these issues and “a radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually – a woman-centred approach.” It recommended, for example, that women convicted of non-violent offences should serve community sentences, and that larger prisons should be replaced by smaller custodial units. 

But few of these recommendations have been implemented and there has been little fundamental change in the system. Across England and Wales, the number of women in prison has roughly doubled since the mid-1990s, from around 2,000 women to close to 4,000. Meanwhile, recently there has also been talk of a new “prison building revolution.” 

In 2015, then chancellor George Osborne said: “So many of our jails are relics from Victorian times on prime real estate in our inner cities.” He suggested that 3000 new urban homes for working people could be built on such land. New mega-prisons could then be opened in rural areas.

Holloway in north London. Holloway in north London. PA/Andrew Parsons. All Rights Reserved.

In the case of the Holloway prison site, the Ministry of Justice reportedly awarded the property agent Bilfinger GVA a contract to advise on the sale. It is understood that luxury apartments could be built here, worth billions of pounds—potentially furthering the gentrification of the area and the wider social cleansing of London.

A local estate agent told the Evening Standard that large sites in this area of the capital are rare and that “any new scheme here will be extremely popular with buyers.”

Local community members and activists with the Reclaim Holloway campaign and groups including Sisters Uncut have been trying to find out more about the status of the land, when it is likely to be sold and to whom – but despite the site being public property this information is not readily available to the public.

This, and the possibility of the site being transformed into upscale developments, adds insult to injury. Instead of moving the incarcerated to rural areas and selling urban prison land to developers, overall prison populations must go down. Instead of luxury property, the Holloway prison site must be reclaimed – for the collective good.

Safe spaces – not luxury flats

For generations, the Holloway prison was a site of state violence against women. Countless revolutionaries were imprisoned here, including women fighters of the Easter Rising and suffragettes who, fighting for the right to vote for women, were labelled terrorists and force-fed. In the 20th century, inmates also included Ruth Ellis, who in 1955 became the last woman to be executed in the UK.

More recently, in 2010, three women identified as the “ringleaders” of a mass hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre were transferred to Holloway prison. In 2016, a woman named Sarah Reed died tragically at Holloway; she had been imprisoned for defending herself from sexual assault.

Given this history, opening a women's building on the site would be a poignant way to reclaim it – and there is an urgent need for such a space. Currently women in North London do not have adequate access to the specialist services they require. In Islington, for example, there are only 27 refuge beds, meaning 2 in 3 women fleeing domestic violence get turned away.

Reclaim Holloway’s New Year's Eve 2016 protest outside Holloway prison. Reclaim Holloway’s New Year's Eve 2016 protest outside Holloway prison. Photo: Nandini Archer.

A Freedom of Information project conducted by Sisters Uncut this year revealed that local councils across London have cut support for services helping women suffering abuse by an average of 38% since 2010. In 2010, London boroughs spent £324,000 on average to maintain domestic violence refuges. By 2016, this had fallen to £202,000.

We believe that violence against women is committed not only by intimate partners, but also by the government. Cuts to specialist services and legal aid, scarce social housing and harmful welfare and immigration policies prevent women from living safely. The prison system is an inhumane response to the social problems that women face.

Funds allocated to this prison system – and new plans to build super prisons – could be used to prioritise policies that radically reduce the number of people in prison through investing in communities and providing social welfare instead.

Survivors of domestic violence need spaces to heal and seek safety, including refuges, support services and housing, rather than being priced out of their communities by the inevitable rent increases caused by a luxury development. Domestic violence and state violence against women are also connected. 46% of women in prison are domestic violence survivors and 53% of women in prison experienced abuse as children.

Importantly, we are calling for a “women’s building,” rather than “women’s centre,” to emphasise that we need a permanent, not a temporary space where services can end whenever rents are increased, funds are cut, or providers are kicked out.

Reclaim Holloway

The possibility of reclaiming the Holloway prison site has attracted the attention of Green Party politician, Sian Berry, and Islington North MP and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, for example.

Locally, a November consultation agreed that the community must come first. The Holloway Prison Stories website meanwhile reveals the strong sense of community around the site, as local residents and ex-inmates share their memories of the prison. On New Year’s Eve, the Reclaim Holloway campaign decorated the empty prison with messages written on women’s clothes.

Reclaim Holloway’s New Years’ Eve 2016 protest outside Holloway prison Reclaim Holloway’s New Year's Eve 2016 protest outside Holloway prison. Photo: Nandini Archer.

Earlier this year, a partnership of local groups demanded that the Ministry of Justice loan them the prison visitor’s centre to be run in the community interest – rather than leaving it empty while the site’s sale, planning and redevelopment occur. This structure stands just outside the prison’s walls and is modern and accessible.

The Prison Reform Trust has also suggested that the space could be used to provide support and supervision, access to safe housing, mental health and addiction services, debt counselling, employment training and a crèche. They’ve said it would be “a fitting legacy for all those staff, prisoners, supporters and monitors who have worked so hard to create a positive, rehabilitative culture in a prison beset by problems in the past.”

In 2016 Baroness Corston said in the House of Lords: “If the Government had announced that Holloway was to close and the site be used for social housing … and, preferably, two women’s centres were opened in different parts of London, I would hang out the flags.”

Unfortunately, this has not happened. But we can and must reclaim this site of state violence against women. In New York, a women’s building is being developed following the closure of Bayview Women’s Prison. Something similar could happen here. This is public land, and must be used for the public good, prioritising and supporting local women.

In the words of one inmate, at the time of the Holloway prison's closure: "Wouldn't it be a good place to provide housing for women who have lost everything through coming to prison? Who are leaving and trying to piece their life back together but usually have nowhere to go. And wouldn't it be a good idea to build a women's centre to support women to move forward?"

About the author

Nandini Archer is a human rights activist and policy researcher who specialises in violence against women, intersectionality and migrant rights. She is an active member of the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, and currently works as a research consultant in gender and social development at the Overseas Development Institute in London.


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