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Blog | 16 July 2021

Five years after HMP Holloway closed, what happened to Western Europe’s largest women’s prison?

Today marks five years since HMP Holloway in North London shut its gates for the last time. Once the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, it was closed by the government who said that it was inadequate and unconducive to the rehabilitation of its residents, and started looking for a buyer for the site.

Over its 164-year history, Holloway Prison saw the force-feeding of suffragettes on hunger strike, the UK’s last execution of a woman in 1955 and the imprisonment of our patron, the economist Vicky Pryce. Thousands of women passed through its gates, each with their own unique story.

Today, five years after the last women left its gates, it stands empty and deserted, a reminder both of the long struggle for women’s rights and liberation, and of the thousands of women who lived there, deprived of their freedom.

Working Chance and Holloway

Over the years it was open, a network of specialist support services sprung up in and around Holloway to cater to the needs of the many women held there.

Working Chance’s own story is deeply intertwined with the history of Holloway. In fact, it was on a visit there that our founder Jocelyn Hillman first saw the lack of hope for the future for women in prison and the limited employment opportunities available to them. She recognised too how this meant many women became trapped in a cycle of criminalisation with scant opportunities to escape. While there, the talent, drive, and aspiration of the women she met prompted her to take action and to found Working Chance in 2009, to create a bridge between women with convictions and employers.

Since then, Working Chance has supported thousands of women with convictions on their journeys to employment and financial independence. Twelve years later, we’re more determined than ever to level the playing field for women with convictions looking to rebuild their lives.

The prison itself

Built in 1852 as a mixed sex prison, Holloway became a women-only prison in 1902 and housed over 500 women at any given time.

Lauren, spent the "worst six months of her life" behind its walls. To her,

Holloway was an archaic conveyor belt system, for cramming vulnerable damaged women into metal cages.

She criticised the process of rehabilitating women during their sentence as "expecting women to magically flourish after months or even years of trauma, where inequalities only worsen."

What Lauren saw is confirmed by the statistics. During Holloway’s last official inspection in 2013, 37% of residents reported feeling depressed or suicidal.

To this day, the UK imprisons more women than any other country in western Europe and in most cases, these are women who have experienced multiple disadvantage and whose lives have been marred by poverty and social exclusion. 71% of women in prison reported mental health issues and that 46% had attempted suicide at some point in their life. 49% reported needing help with a drug problem on arrival to prison.

Holloway wasn’t the right place for these women to access the support they needed, and neither are prisons today. The vast majority of the women who come into contact with the criminal justice system need community-based support that helps them address the root causes of their offending and gives them the tools to move forward with their lives.

Sudden closure

On 15 November 2015, it was suddenly announced that HMP Holloway, would be closed and the site sold off. This came as a shock to many, not least its 500 residents, who were left distressed about what this would mean for them.

In 2016, when the prison finally closed, these women were sent to prisons outside of London, ripping them from their families, communities and support services. In England and Wales, women in prison are held 64 miles from their homes on average. Maintaining family visits and relationships while in prison, therefore, is very difficult and eventual reintegration into their communities becomes harder. And it’s not only the women who suffer. Every year, more than 17,700 children are separated from their mothers through maternal imprisonment. In 95% of cases, this results in children leaving the family home.

Almost all of the support services that existed around Holloway also disappeared with its closure. Some ended up abandoning their projects altogether and others, like Working Chance, were forced to adapt and change their way of working so that they could still offer their vital services to women. Given that many of the women now being sent to prisons outside of London would eventually return there after their release, Working Chance decided to keep its office in Islington. From there, we continued to support women with convictions across the capital and began to work with prisons close to London to make sure women still had access to our employability support prior to their release.

Our colleagues at Holloway United Therapies, a group of former therapists who were based within Holloway and now provide specialist psychotherapy to women in contact with the criminal justice system, are another valuable legacy of the closed prison. Today, our partnership with them is a core element of our service, meaning that our clients have access to psychotherapy free of charge for up to a year. We know that securing and maintaining employment is about more than a stellar CV; it’s about wellbeing, self-belief, and being able to leave the past behind you.

Holloway today

Since its closure, campaigners and organisations such as Reclaim Holloway and Community Plan For Holloway have worked tirelessly to make sure that the former site of HMP Holloway is turned into a space that benefits the local community and subverts the prison's dark history by creating a positive space for women who need support to avoid becoming caught up in the criminal justice system.

After three years of looking for a buyer, in 2019 the site was sold by the Ministry of Justice to the housing association Peabody for £81million. Peabody were lent £42million by the Mayor of London's Land Fund, on the condition that 60% homes on the site would be social rented and genuinely affordable. Peabody’s designs for the site include 980 new homes and a new 1.5 acre park. Peabody and Islington Council are also proposing a 1,400 sqm community building for women to access support services, which they say will "provide a fitting legacy for the site".

However, the plans have been criticised by Community Plan for Holloway and prominent female architects for being too limited in their ambitions for the women’s building, which is being proposed as a single storey under a residential block. Helen Aston of the Manchester School of Architecture said at a recent panel event at the London Festival of Architecture that it was “dismissive, arrogant, and patronising” that the design process was not being carried out by a women-led architectural practice and that the plans were “a totally lost opportunity." Sarah Akigbogun, vice-chair of Women in Architecture UK, called it “another example of the marginalisation of women’s needs but also of women in the construction and the procurement processes”. Local Islington architect Sarah Wigglesworth said:

"Women should design and build this building. This would empower and skill up a generation of construction professionals and show that construction is a viable – even desirable – occupation for girls and women."

As a charity supporting women with convictions into employment, we would go further and argue that as far as possible, women with convictions should be given the opportunity to work on the new building. Given that employment is the main driver of reducing reoffending, and that most women in prison are there for theft, this would be a perfect way to demonstrate that helping women to thrive and support themselves is a far better approach than letting them struggle and then imprisoning them.

The final stage of Peabody’s consultation on the redevelopment of the site has now begun. Here at Working Chance, we’ll be contributing to the consultation and keeping a close eye on the plans as they develop, and trying to ensure that the site benefits women specifically as well as the wider local community.

Hopes for the future

When asked what her vision for the site would be after experiencing Holloway first hand, Lauren said "in its place, it would be good to invest in mental health and drug services instead, so that women can get the support they need rather than end up in prison."

That’s exactly what we believe: a fitting legacy for the site is to provide solutions for the problems that lead women into contact with the criminal justice system.

This women's building must not be an afterthought but rather an important community hub and integral feature of the site. It should be an inclusive space that is safe and secure for survivors of violence, those formerly or currently in contact with the criminal justice system, and migrant women including those with insecure immigration status. It must be trans-inclusive and cater fully to women with children of all ages. Further, we feel that it should have no connection to the criminal justice system or its connected bodies, to ensure that it is truly a safe and rehabilitative space for those who need it most.

Conclusion

The abandoned site where HMP Holloway once stood serves as a reminder that prison isn’t the right place for the vast majority of women we put there. Instead, we must invest in support in the community and ensure women have access to the help they need so that they don’t come into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

We have an incredible opportunity to turn a place that stood for women's punishment into a space that will serve its community and support women to build the futures they want for themselves and their families. The fight for a criminal justice system that treats the causes of women’s offending rather than its symptoms continues, and the Holloway site could be a potent symbol of that.