On 27 May, Sisters Uncut occupied the site of what used to be the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. Eight women climbed into the old visitors’ centre through a window. Others unfurled banners on the roof: ‘This is Public Land: Our Land.’ Supporters rallied outside. The police came – eventually more than 70 of them, mostly white men – and formed a cordon around us.
HMP Holloway is a site of state violence against women, historical and contemporary. It is where Suffragettes were force-fed, where women from the Easter Rising were incarcerated, where Denise McNeil was held for a year without charge after her hunger-strike at Yarl’s Wood, and it is where Sarah Reed, who had long-term mental health problems and was beaten by the police, died in her cell last year. When Holloway closed last July, the 600 women held there were moved to already overcrowded prisons outside London, away from their families and networks of support.
Sisters Uncut, the feminist direct action group organising against cuts to domestic violence services, are demanding that a women’s centre and social housing be built on the ten-acre site. They reopened it for a week of activities aimed at women, non-binary people and children in the local community. Their occupation aligned interconnected anti-austerity struggles: the struggle for affordable housing (the site is expected to be privatised and turned into luxury flats); the struggle to fund domestic violence services, especially specialist services for BME and non-binary women (34 centres have closed since 2010); the struggle against the criminalisation of vulnerable women (46 per cent of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence; 81 per cent are imprisoned for non-violent crime); and, the week before the general election, the struggle for women’s access to the democratic process (domestic violence survivors with no fixed abode can’t register to vote; those who can are at risk of being found by their abusers). In Islington, there are 27 refuge beds for women fleeing domestic violence, and 20,000 people on the council housing waiting list.
The police stayed for ten hours on the first day. I spent six hours in a narrow area next to the vistors’ centre, with 12 other women and three men, trying to keep them from the doors. They stood at either end of the passageway and on the raised ground beside it, stationed among the flowers and shrubs. Our group had been separated from the rest: we could hear Sisters drilling inside, could wave to them through patches of window, call up to those on the roof, and watch as the police switched shifts or moved their weight from foot to foot. It was midnight when they went away.
Women make up 5 per cent of the prison population. But they account for 28 per cent of self-harm incidents. The rising suicide rate among female prisoners has been linked to inadequate mental health provision. Inside Holloway’s former visitors’ centre, colourful stickers on the backs of toilet doors give a number to call if visitors think a prisoner is at risk of self-harm, suicide or bullying. I went to a workshop at which Mabel from Movement for Justice spoke of organising against an atmosphere of resignation, abuse and exploitation cultivated by the Serco guards during her detention at Yarl’s Wood.
I went back to Holloway on 2 June, the last day of the occupation. Sisters Uncut were holding a vigil for all the lives and the time that had been lost there and as a result of domestic violence. In England and Wales, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. A group gathered outside as dedications were read. A border of flowers has been planted around the vast and featureless prison buildings. We picked pink geraniums and laid them out on the ground.