By Sara Hyde, Caledonian Ward
George Osborne recently announced that he’s going to get rid of one of the most prominent “rat-infested Victorian prisons” – the women’s prison at HMP Holloway – and we’re all supposed to give him a cheer. But is this really cause for celebration?
I’ve worked in women’s prisons for seven years, so I find myself compelled to set the Chancellor straight:
- first, the current prison at Holloway was opened in the 1980s. Not exactly Victorian, then;
- second, it has a grading of 3 (1 terrible, 4 exceptional) from the MoJ and has almost 24-hours a week of purposeful activity for the women who reside there. The most recent HMIP inspection noted: “Despite the constraints of the physical environment and its size, most women, particularly the most vulnerable, were held safely and treated decently – although some significant shortcomings remained”;
- third, the Inspectorate also noted the support for those who self-harmed or were otherwise vulnerable was better than in most prisons. At the time of the 2013 inspection, there had been no self-inflicted deaths since 2007 – although there has been one since. Its impact was felt throughout the prison because it had become so unusual, not through lack of people trying, but because of the excellent staff.
I long for a justice system that plays a part in restoring and rehabilitating people and communities; one that decides that holding women, 80% of whom are incarcerated for non-violent crime, is a terrible idea. Part of me rejoices that serious reform may be in the air and that Holloway is going to close, but there is infrastructure inside and outside its walls that cannot easily be transferred to Surrey, where Bronzefield and Downview are located.
The advantage of Holloway is that women can be held close to their families and communities, and have access to community agency support when they leave. It holds many women from London, Kent and Essex. Try telling a mother from Colchester, who has already had her life blown apart by her daughter’s crime, that HMP Bronzefield has good transport links to London. It doesn’t. Strong family relationships help deter people from crimes – how will these relationships be sustained with extra distance and extra cost?
One of HMP Holloway’s greatest advantages is how visible it is to the general public: these inner-city prisons remind us that inequality is still destroying our society.
Anyone who thinks this “quick fix” can work has never spent time trying to find somewhere for a vulnerable woman to sleep on the night she comes out of prison. In a cruelly ironic move, the only home some people have known is to be bulldozed and the site used to build luxury flats that no-one on a normal salary, let alone benefits, will be able to afford. (The central London location will no doubt make them attractive investments.)
Reducing imprisonment and improving conditions are clearly desirable aims, but smaller, modern prisons could be built on existing sites. There is a huge opportunity here to use alternatives to custody and finally to meet the policy recommendations set out in the 2007 Cortson Report. Bring on the small custodial units that allow women to be held near their children, so that their kids suffer a tiny bit less. This may yet prove to be good news. Let’s see what kind of prison Mr Gove builds next and if he actually executes the things he learnt in Texas. Quality of life for so many people depends on it.