Vigil outside Holloway prison in June 2017, London. Credit: Nandini Archer.
On 11 January 2016 Sarah Reed became the last woman to die in Holloway Prison. According to the Ministry of Justice, she was ‘found unresponsive’ in her cell at 8 am; prison staff ‘attempted CPR, but she was pronounced dead shortly after’.
The 32-year-old mixed-race woman had suffered severe mental health problems ever since the death of her baby in 2003, including grief, depression, schizophrenia and bulimia.
Four years before her own death, Sarah had been brutally assaulted by white police officer James Kiddie on the floor of a shop in Regent Street, accused of shoplifting. The assault was caught on CCTV cameras; the police officer’s punishment was a community order.
In 2015 Sarah had been sectioned at a mental health unit, where she was charged with an alleged assault on another patient. She told her family she had been defending herself from attempted rape. Sarah was sent on remand to Holloway for psychiatric reports, where she was classed as at low risk of self-harm. She was placed in segregation, and then moved to C1, the psychiatric unit that had become notorious in the 1980s.
When her mother Marylin visited, she found her daughter looking unwell and acting strangely; it appeared she wasn’t being given her antipsychotic medication. One of her last letters home read: ‘Mum, this is just to say Merry Xmas . . . PS. Get me out of jail.’
Sarah Reed’s death quickly became linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, which had started in the United States and which highlighted deaths of black women and men in custody. Lee Jasper, who coordinated a justice campaign, wrote that: ‘This is a horrific tale of institutional racism, sexual violence, corruption and brutal incompetence/negligence that defies belief.’
“This is a horrific tale of institutional racism, sexual violence, corruption and brutal incompetence/negligence that defies belief.”
On the night of 8 February, the day of Sarah’s funeral, hundreds gathered for a vigil outside Holloway Prison. Her name was marked out in candles on the pavement, and the crowd chanted, ‘Say her name: Sarah Reed. Black Lives Matter.’
Racism within the prison service had only been officially recognized in the year 2000, but there had been reports of racist treatment inside Holloway since at least the 1980s. Few records exist on the experiences of women from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups prior to this, and in the first 100 years of Holloway’s existence the vast majority of inmates were white.
Holloway prison, London 2008. Photo: Matt S/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.
By the 1980’s an estimated 30% of Holloway’s prisoners were black. As in the United States, the number of black prisoners was increasing at a faster rate than any other ethnic group. Black women were more likely to be arrested and given custodial sentences than white women, especially for drug offences, and less likely to be given bail.
Black women experienced discrimination right the way through a criminal justice system that was dominated – then as now – by white male police, judges and QCs. Within prison, meanwhile, black women received harsher treatment – denied medical attention, excessively punished, and verbally and physically assaulted by both staff and other prisoners.
“Black women received harsher treatment – denied medical attention, excessively punished, and verbally and physically assaulted by both staff and other prisoners.”
Adaku, jailed at Holloway in the 1980s, described being sent to the punishment block for two days after a fight with a white inmate: ‘She called me a black bitch ...then she hit me and I had to hit her back.’ Black women were refused baths, their visitors were more thoroughly searched and watched, and hair, skin and cosmetic products handed out on reception were only for white women. Aduku was also refused access to her inhaler for asthma, told she only wanted it to ‘make myself high’.
Another inmate, Abbena, spent the first five months of a 20-month sentence at Holloway in solitary confinement because the prison authorities wouldn’t recognize her Rastafarianism or its dietary beliefs. ‘They kept coming each meal time, each week, with a pork sausage. This one officer kept calling me all these names like gollywog and nig-nog . . . One day I was having a wash and she was standing at the door calling me a black bastard and I threw the soap at her.’
Prisoners were refused black magazines like West Indian World, as well as Marcus Garvey books, and staff tried to keep black women separated from each other: ‘They’ll put one black girl in among 30 white girls. It’s common practice.’ There were no senior officers who were black, and no black doctors, while ‘one racist doctor . . . used to prescribe Depixol for non-white prisoners. About two-thirds of the black women prisoners are drugged.’
Between 1994 and 2003 the number of black females imprisoned in the UK rose by nearly 200%, higher than all other ethnicities. Angela Devlin, author of Invisible Women, identified two main stereotypes when it came to staff attitudes to black female prisoners: ‘poor mules’ and ‘strong fighters’. Poor mules were women serving long sentences for importing drugs from abroad, often West Africa, and they were regarded with some sympathy.
British black women on the other hand were seen as physically strong, aggressive and potentially violent and were treated very differently from white women on admission, despite being charged with similar offences.
‘White women, especially if they were young, attractive and well dressed, were patted on the head and told to run away and behave better in future,’ writes Angela Devlin, while black women’s crimes were regarded more judgementally and ‘any attempt at assertiveness was quashed immediately.’ Black prisoners were more likely to be disciplined, and heavily supervised, and male officers described them as ‘loud’, ‘mouthy’ and ‘gobby’.
Protest outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, Bedford, May 2017. Photo: Wasi Daniju/Flickr. Wasi Daniju/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.
The rate of foreign national women in prison was also beginning to rise in the 1980s and many were young black women, ‘poor mules’ charged with drug-related offences. Some had been forced to import drugs at gunpoint and made to swallow lethal amounts of heroin or cocaine in ‘fingers’ of rubber gloves. But instead of focusing on the traffickers, punishment fell on the victims and they were sent to Holloway.
Foreign national women were also charged under immigration laws – often initially arrested for a minor crime and then incarcerated at Holloway. By the beginning of the twenty-first century up to a third of its 500 prisoners were foreign nationals, and the prison was also a designated detention centre for alleged illegal immigrants.
One woman, ‘Ms K’, had come to the UK from Nigeria as a victim of torture. She took part in a five-week hunger strike over conditions and treatment at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, and in 2010 she was transferred to Holloway where she was told, ‘You are from the jungle, you should go back.’
Denise McNeil, a black woman from Jamaica who had left to escape domestic abuse, was labelled a ‘ringleader’ at Yarl’s Wood and held at Holloway for a year – without being charged. Prison was being used to control and punish ‘loud’ behaviour, and being black was almost an offence in itself.
Sarah Reed’s death in 2016 brought attention back to racism in the prison service. The last woman to die in Holloway Prison was working class, mixed-race and highly vulnerable, and like thousands of women before her, she should never have been jailed in the first place.