HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, shut down in July. Prison reform campaigners and charity workers argue that the ten-acre publicly owned site in Islington should be ‘reclaimed’ for the community and turned into social housing and a women’s centre. Instead, it’s being marketed to property developers. It could be turned into 500 flats worth an average of £500,000 each, giving the site a redevelopment value of more than £250 million.
Meanwhile, Bronzefield Prison in Ashford, Surrey, was recently found to be giving women sleeping bags and tents when they released them, because there was no accommodation available. Between 2010 and 2014, 32 women’s refuges shut down.
In November 2015, the then justice secretary Michael Gove called Holloway ‘antiquated and inadequate’ and announced it was to be closed as part of a ‘radical reform’ of the prison system. Women prisoners would serve their sentences ‘in more humane surroundings better designed to keep them out of crime’, Gove said, as he laid out plans to move inmates to smaller and more modern facilities outside London. George Osborne, the chancellor at the time, said that selling old prisons would create more space for inner-city housing.
According to Ministry of Justice statistics, 11 women prisoners in England and Wales committed suicide in the year to June 2016, compared to one the previous year. That’s more than 10 per cent of the ‘self-inflicted deaths’ in prisons, even though fewer than 5 per cent of prisoners are women. Since 2012 there has been a gradual increase in the self-harm rate among women prisoners, ‘reaching 306 per 1000 in the 12 months ending March 2016. Female self-harm rates remain considerably higher than self-harm rates of males.’
Charities working with women prisoners say that closing Holloway has meant specialist mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence support services at the site have now been lost. According to Maureen Mansfield of Women in Prison and the Reclaim Holloway Campaign, Holloway was much better than other prisons at looking after ‘really unwell, really distressed women’. In 2013, it was made a ‘resettlement prison’, which meant women received additional support throughout their sentence and were helped to integrate back into their community when they were released. ‘Holloway became a London prison for London women,’ Mansfield and Hannah Pittaway wrote in April, ‘where they could serve their whole sentences close to family and community ties.’
Most women who were in Holloway have now been transferred to one of three prisons in Surrey – Bronzefield, Downview and Send – which do not have the same specialist units and are more difficult for London-based families to visit. In Bronzefield, women are now being made to share cells because so many new prisoners are coming from London courts, Mansfield told me.
‘The real focus of the reforms’, the Reclaim Justice Network says, isn’t to improve the care of women prisoners, but ‘to sell off state assets and public land, privatisation, and expansion of the criminal justice system’.
‘Women’s routes into offending are different’ from men’s, according to Penny Bennett, who works for Wish, which provides counselling to women in prison. ‘Women’s offences are less often violent’ – 81 per cent of women in prison have been convicted of a non-violent crime – ‘more often related to mental health, and more often come with a history of trauma’: 46 per cent report having experienced domestic violence and 53 per cent report having been abused as a child.
Many of the women Bennett works with have been charged with very minor offences, such as calling 999 too often, self-harming in public, hanging over a bridge or walking along the edge of a motorway. Bennett says that cuts to domestic violence shelters and mental healthcare, along with a dearth of social housing, mean that women who have survived violence often don’t get any help until they commit a crime. And the lack of housing for prison leavers encourages some women to reoffend, because at least in custody they have a place to sleep.