The Fight to Save the Biggest Women's Prison in Western Europe

HMP Holloway recently closed its doors, and a community effort has risen to stop the former prison site becoming more luxury housing in a city where it's already impossible to find an affordable place to live.

by Wail Qasim
14 November 2016, 3:00pm

Ash Sarkar, from protest movement Reclaim Holloway, addressing a crowd of demonstrators (All photos by the author)

It used to be the largest women's prison in not just the UK, but western Europe. Now, north London's empty HMP Holloway has become the focus of a campaign that wants to secure the site for community use, resisting the development of what some fear will be more unaffordable housing in the capital.

It's Saturday evening and protesters have gathered to "Reclaim Holloway", bringing together ex-prisoners, families of those who have died in state custody, prison reform campaigners, local housing activists and the voices of women who were recently moved from Holloway to prisons elsewhere. As the small gathering assembles, I join to hear their proposed alternative vision for the site.

High walls surround the prison, and looking on from Camden Road you'd be forgiven for thinking women were still being held there. The organisers say, in fact, that many in the surrounding community were unaware the prison had closed until the campaign began.

To bridge that gap and tell the story of what happened to HMP Holloway's population, charity policy and campaigns manager Claire Cain reads out prisoners' own accounts of how they were moved. One woman, known as SK, says: "When it was announced that Holloway was shutting down – well, it wasn't exactly announced; a slip of paper under my door, more like – it was devastating for myself. And I was devastated for staff."

Things changed quickly at Holloway, according to another inmate, known as N. "A lot of support and services were shut down," she says, "and many of us were scared and anxious about what was happening. It seemed the officers were just as much in the dark as us prisoners."

The women point out their concerns about what will happen at Holloway now they've been moved. SK summarises it all when she asks: "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?"

Problem is, it's not that simple. Reclaim Holloway and the campaigns involved within it agree with the prisoners that the land should be put to the service of the community – and women, especially. But the government has so far made no indication that they would seek to include the sort of housing and amenities these campaigners are hoping for.

In August, the Ministry of Justice hired property consultants Bilfinger GVA to advise on selling the site. It's likely that it'll be taken up to build homes, but estate agents Currell told the Evening Standard that average properties in the area were going for between £450,000 to £550,000 in August of this year. Over the past 20 years, the average price of a house in Islington has increased six-fold, according to Shelter, and the Ministry of Justice is currently in the middle of a £1.3 billion overhaul of the prison sector, while facing a 15 percent cut to its budget.

Outside Holloway, the protest is confident that it can apply pressure to the council, the Mayor of London's office and Ministry of Justice to reclaim the prison from what they see as both a criminal justice system that locks people up rather than rehabilitating them, and housing policy that shuts them out of affordable homes.

Demonstrators getting ready to release paper lanterns in memory of the women who've died in custody.

Maureen Mansfield, from the Reclaim Justice Network, is hopeful, citing the fact that community campaigns have previously had an impact on Holloway.

"In the 1970s, when the decision was being made about knocking down the old Victorian prison, a community came together as a group called Alternatives to Holloway," she tells me. "Their plan was not dissimilar to what we would be suggesting: secure stable accommodation, intervention for people suffering from drug addiction, somewhere for women to flee domestic violence, somewhere where people can be skilled up in trade and education so they can enter the labour force, worker cooperatives, green spaces."

Maureen points to the old visitors' centre just outside the prison: "Women fundraised for that and it was built with money held in trust," she says. "That building is useable and could be used for a community women's centre."

While linking together the problems of unaffordable housing and incarceration, these activists are also keen to remember those who didn't make it out of prison. Speakers talk several times about Sarah Reed, a young woman who died at HMP Holloway in January of this year, and to end the protest, lanterns are lit and released in memory of her and all of those who have died in custody.

While the lanterns float above the deserted prison grounds, Josh Virasami from Black Lives Matter UK says: "There are many possibilities. And we are very confident that, for the community's good, these can be achieved."


More on VICE:

Mental Health Services in Britain's Women's Prisons Are Still a Mess

What Inmates Think About Rising Murder and Suicide Rates in British Prisons

How to Survive Life in a British Prison