There is no prison for women in London
It’s been two years since the surprise announcement, made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the 2015 Autumn Spending Review, that HMP Holloway – the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, and the only women’s prison in London was to be closed.
By the end of 2015, the prison had begun a rapid process of closure with women immediately being relocated across the remaining prison estate in particular to HMP Bronzefield and HMP Downview. Around 200 women were moved to Downview, a prison which had been empty for two years and was not fully up and running when women were moved in.
More than a year later and women who were once in Holloway are now situated across the country all outside of London. 2016, the year of the prison’s closure, saw the highest number of deaths in prison on record.
Women in Prison has been working to understand and raise awareness of the impact the closure has had and continues to have on women affected by the criminal justice system.
The report has twin focuses. Firstly, it is a consultation with 50 women affected by the criminal justice system many of whom were imprisoned in HMP Holloway asking whether and how the closure has had an impact. Secondly, it canvasses those same women for ideas for what they would like to now see developed on the site. This part of the report feeds into the Community Plan for Holloway, a project from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies which places the community at the heart of redevelopment plans for the former prison site.
Holloway had a capacity of around 590 women with at least 1,800 women received into the prison every year. The majority of women in prison are serving very short sentences and Holloway reflected this, with nearly 55% of sentenced women serving less than a year and 26.3% less than three months.
Like all prisons, Holloway has a sad history, including inadequate resources to help those with mental illness and other complex needs and a completely unsuitable environment within which to address these issues.
Nevertheless, over the years Holloway had become a national hub for services to help women tackle the complex root causes of offending including mental ill health and experience of trauma. Its closure has meant a substantial reduction in specialist services for women affected by the criminal justice system in London and beyond, as well as the loss of skilled and experienced staff. Sadly, Women in Prison report, since the closure, the women’s prison population and rates of women’s deaths in prison have both risen, and specialist services are under even more financial pressure than previously.
Between April and July 2017 WIP issued questionnaires and hosted discussion groups with women affected by the criminal justice system. Women were invited to share their thoughts about any impact the closure of the prison has had and their ideas for the future redevelopment of the site. Here are the key findings from this consultation:
1: The closure of Holloway had, and continues to have, a significant negative impact on women affected by the criminal justice system.
The closure caused distress, anxiety, and in some cases significant harm to mental health and wellbeing. For women who were in Holloway up to its closure many felt frustrated, and even sad, about being moved from a prison where the support and facilities were praised and from which they were being so abruptly disconnected.
The closure also appears to have had a knock on impact across the women’s prison estate by causing overcrowding and a great deal of movement for women between prisons in order to accommodate the 500+ Holloway residents. The majority of respondents to this consultation were from London and a reoccurring concern is that they are now in prison far from home meaning it is very costly and difficult (or in some cases impossible) for families to visit.
2: The redevelopment of the Holloway site should include specialist housing for women affected by the criminal justice system.
Supported housing, domestic violence refuges and hostels were among the top suggestions.
3: Support services for mental health and domestic violence were identified by participants as a key need to be developed on the site.
4:The Holloway site should be used to support and empower women.
The majority of respondents called for the land to be used in part as a safe and empowering space specifically for women.
5: The redevelopment should acknowledge that the site was a prison of historical significance.
It is clear that women affected by the criminal justice system have been greatly impacted upon by the closure of Holloway. The report shows that the closure caused distress and frustration and continues to have a negative impact on those in prison.
I conclude my summary of this report with a series of quotes from women who had served time in Holloway and who were consulted by Women in Prison: