On 26 September 1849 the lord mayor of London, Sir James Duke, laid the foundation stone for the new City House of Correction at Holloway. The land had been intended for use as a burial ground for victims of the recent cholera epidemic, but the epidemic had subsided, and the anticipated dead had not arrived. ‘May God preserve the City of London/And make this place a terror to evil-doers,’ the foundation stone read. HMP Holloway, which was the largest women’s prison in Western Europe at its closure in 2016, at first held 120 men and 27 women, as well as a number of boys over the age of eight. Men and women occupied separate wings and had separate tasks: women did the laundry and men and boys worked the treadwheel that supplied water to the prison (this was dangerous work – the treadwheel at Aylesbury Prison was removed in 1843 after three prisoners were crushed to death in a single year). The women, most of whom had been found guilty of prostitution or drunkenness, lived on F Wing, on the eastern side of the prison. Each cell wall had a list showing the daily prison routine. The day began at 5.45 a.m. in summer and 6.45 a.m. in winter (‘Rise, open ventilator, wash, fold bedding’) and ended at 9 p.m. (‘Sling hammock and prepare for bed … lights out’). ‘The light goes out,’ wrote Sylvia Pankhurst, who was imprisoned at Holloway in 1906, and then ‘darkness, a long, sleepless night, and the awakening to another day like yesterday and like tomorrow’.
The conversion of Holloway into a women-only prison in 1902 reflected broader shifts in the British penal system. Before the centralisation of the prison estate in the later 19th century, criminal punishment mostly meant exile or execution. Convicts had been transported to British colonies in the Americas and later to Australia throughout the 18th century. After public hanging was abolished in 1868, the same year the last convict ship arrived in Western Australia, a prison term became the most common form of punishment, one practised as a monopoly of the state.
The Prisons Act of 1877, which brought prisons in England, Scotland and Wales under state control, encountered opposition in Parliament for ‘sapping the foundations’ of independent local administration. Until then, most prisons had been run by local authorities. Conditions varied hugely: wealthier inmates at Holloway, such as W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, could pay six shillings to entrepreneurial jailers for a private cell and a ‘first-class’ stay. (‘Never had I a pleasanter holiday, a more charming season of repose,’ Stead wrote of his incarceration in 1885, after he had ‘purchased’ a 13-year-old girl as part of an exposé of child prostitution.) At Newgate Gaol, established in the 12th century and finally closed in 1902, debtors and felons had to pay for their food, water and gin, and could purchase their release from fetters in a ‘trade of chains’. Male prisoners could ‘visit’ their female counterparts (who might afterwards ‘plead the belly’ to avoid execution) at the cost of sixpence. When the Quaker penal reformer Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate in 1813, she found three hundred women detained in a space designed for fifty, crammed together regardless of age or offence.
By contrast, the new Victorian houses of correction discouraged idleness and tried to induce reflection. In the early days of Holloway, inmates worked at oakum-picking (unravelling old rope for use in mat-making) in high-sided booths designed to prevent them from seeing or speaking to one another (at Pentonville, which opened in 1842, prisoners were made to wear masks while exercising). Keeping men and women separate was meant to curb the spread of criminal influence. ‘When woman falls,’ one prison director observed, ‘she seems to possess a capacity almost beyond man, for running into all that is evil.’ Women were thought to respond differently to detention: ‘Female prisoners, as a body, do not bear imprisonment so well as the male prisoners,’ according to the medical officer at Brixton’s all-female prison, which opened in 1853. The separation of men and women was difficult to enforce in mixed prisons, and so the prison commission – the establishment of which in 1877 furthered the process of prison centralisation – decided to ‘streamline the administration’ by sending the male inmates of Holloway to Brixton, Wormwood Scrubs or Pentonville and, in 1902, concentrating all of London’s female prisoners in Holloway.
The Gladstone Committee of 1895 suggested that ‘prison discipline … be more effectually designed to maintain, stimulate, or awaken the higher susceptibilities of prisoners’ and ‘develop their moral instincts’, marking an ostensible shift from a system of punishment to one of reform. The report also recommended the development of the borstal system for young offenders and the improvement of prison educational facilities. The argument for reform, however, conflicted with ideas of female depravity. Were women truly accountable for their actions? Were they redeemable? Did they have ‘higher susceptibilities’? As Caitlin Davies notes in Bad Girls, her history of Holloway and its inmates, incarcerated women were considered far more difficult to manage than men. Misconduct in Holloway, the prison inspector Arthur Griffiths insisted in 1870, was ‘intensified by hysteria, and those unsexed creatures respect no authority. At times the place is like a pandemonium.’ Selina Salter, one of the working-class prisoners Davies studies, was reported to have destroyed furniture in 13 cells and torn up six prison gowns. She was reprimanded four hundred times for refusing to work and two hundred times for violent conduct over the course of her repeated terms of imprisonment.
Descriptions of female temper may of course tell us more about contemporary expectations of femininity than about the experiences of female prisoners. In the year it became a women’s prison, Holloway had 949 inmates (when it closed, the figure was 590). As is still the case, most female prisoners were serving short sentences, which are associated with higher rates of recidivism. One woman served three weeks for begging, another one week for drunkenly disrupting a church service. Mary Spillane was sentenced to death after her baby was found dead in a dust heap, before being reprieved on account of her gender. (The baby’s father was charged but never stood trial.) Prison visits by upper-middle-class lady well-wishers, following Elizabeth Fry’s example, aimed to save the inmates from themselves: the Lady Visitors’ Association, founded in 1901 and active at Holloway, was ‘a body of earnest and devoted ladies with experience of rescue work and a keen sympathy with even the most degraded of their sex’. (In practice, these visits incited jealousy, disrupted prison routine, and provoked inmates into ‘simulating penitence’ to access privileges.) The governor lived to the left of the prison entrance, the chaplain to the right: one man for discipline, another for salvation.
Between 1906 and 1914 hundreds of suffragettes were imprisoned and force-fed in Holloway. They turned their resistance to prison rules into a political programme. Suffragette prisoners were held separately and forbidden from communicating, but if one of them smashed a window to protest against poor air quality, for instance, the others would follow suit. They documented their treatment and smuggled out letters and diaries. The WSPU rented a house nearby, and used it as a base to communicate with the prisoners – and to throw bombs and bottles at the prison. Suffragettes were greeted on release by applauding crowds. The governor resigned. ‘If you are not a rebel before going into Holloway, there is no reason to wonder at your being one when you come out,’ wrote Edith Whitworth, secretary of the Sheffield branch of the WSPU. The imprisonment of middle-class women, which was unusual, helped draw public attention to the treatment of incarcerated women in general, and the suffragettes agitated for improved prison conditions. Davies gives ample attention to their use of Holloway as an icon of struggle: a Holloway flag was waved on suffragette marches; Christmas cards were produced with an illustration of the prison (‘Votes and a Happy Year’); there were Holloway diaries, demonstrations, songs and poems (‘Oh, Holloway, grim Holloway/With grey, forbidding towers!/Stern are the walls, but sterner still/Is woman’s free, unconquered will’).
Other Holloway inmates did not feel themselves to possess such agency. ‘We all imagine we can mould our own lives,’ Edith Thompson wrote from Holloway, where she was executed in January 1923, having been found guilty of inciting the murder of her husband by her lover. ‘We seldom can, they are moulded for us – just by the laws and rules and conventions of this world.’ Thompson wasn’t wrong about the way in which women’s lives are made to fit particular shapes: the press dubbed her the ‘Messalina of Ilford’, after the ‘promiscuous’ wife of Emperor Claudius, killed for ‘conspiring’ against him. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison grounds – on which, it was said, no grass grew.
A reform programme in the 1930s – Mary Size was appointed deputy governor in 1927 with a brief to make Holloway ‘the best women’s prison in the country’ – brought educational improvements and a new stress on the importance of femininity: mirrors were allowed in cells, walls were painted pastel colours and one disused cell became ‘the shop’ – where, under a new scheme, inmates could buy cosmetics and make-up. (There was a demand for this: inmates had been using shoe polish for mascara and glossed their hair with margarine.) Flowerbeds were planted in the prison grounds. The early 20th century was a time of public scepticism about the value of imprisonment. In 1910, as home secretary, Churchill had criticised the ‘terrible and purposeless waste’ entailed in giving half of all prisoners sentences of two weeks or less; Alexander Paterson, a commissioner of prisons between 1922 and 1946, criticised the use of prison as a ‘ready handmaid’ to the courts. Prison ‘debases the currency of human feeling’, Sidney and Beatrice Webb declared in English Prisons under Local Government (1922). Policies like remission and probation, as well as the decision to allow people convicted of crimes time to raise money for fines, challenged the dominance of incarceration as a penal strategy, especially for petty offences: between 1908 and 1923 the number of fine defaulters going to prison dropped by 80 per cent.
The fall in the number of inmates at Holloway during the interwar years – by 1936 there were 350; in 1938 this dropped to 290 – corresponds to the use of these alternatives. The prison population in England and Wales halved between 1908 and 1939, from 22,029 to 11,086. Prisons were shut down, construction of new ones halted. Reading Gaol was briefly used as a driving test centre. The 1938 Criminal Justice Bill would have furthered the move away from custodial sentences, extending probation and providing new facilities for young offenders. The Home Office even made plans to relocate Holloway prisoners to the countryside. But these plans were shelved after war was declared in 1939, and the Criminal Justice Bill abandoned. The prison population began to grow again after the war (it quadrupled between 1900 and 2017, with half of this increase taking place since 1990). Wouldn’t it be practical, one local councillor said after visiting the empty cells at Reading in 1938, to ‘raze [the prison] to the ground, and utilise the site for a building more in keeping with our social needs’? The rural site the Home Office wanted to use for women prisoners is now Heathrow airport.
By 1946, Holloway had around five hundred prisoners, who were struggling with rationing: they were short of sanitary towels and were using pages of the Bible as toilet paper (Kathleen Lonsdale, a Quaker scientist and conscientious objector, was told to ‘use Moses’). Inmates worked during the day and were confined to their cells at 4.30 p.m., after a meal of bread and margarine with cheese or spam. In 1949, a group of younger inmates, returning from the wireless room, where they worked for a ‘large electrical company’ – then as now, prison was a place of cheap labour and corporate profit – barricaded themselves in a cell for 48 hours, their shouts heard all over Holloway. They emerged after hoses were brought and water aimed at the cell.
The original Holloway building was a flamboyant mock-up of Warwick Castle. What better place than a castle for all those women in need of rescue? As a child growing up nearby, Davies ‘would stop to stare at the magical castle jail, with its high turrets and gothic battlements’. ‘There is a story,’ Paul Rock writes in Reconstructing a Women’s Prison (1996), ‘that its façade [was intended] … to mollify suburban neighbours unhappy about the construction of a prison in the midst of their new-built homes.’ When an execution took place, crowds would gather outside the gates, as if the spectacle of the building itself substituted for the unseen scaffold within.
Ken Neale, who helped oversee the partial demolition and rebuilding of Holloway in the 1970s, described the original building as ‘a devilish hole, derelict, run-down, dirty and overcrowded’. Despite its external appearance, the interior of the old prison had been radial, on the lines of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, maximising surveillance and control. Now something not so explicitly disciplinarian was needed to suit the liberal discourse of women’s rehabilitation. ‘Most women and girls in custody require some form of medical, psychiatric or remedial treatment,’ James Callaghan stated as home secretary, going on to declare that, enhanced by open green spaces and communal living units as well as new medical and psychiatric facilities, Holloway would become ‘basically a secure hospital’ at the ‘hub of the female penal system’. The reconstruction took place with the prison inmates in situ at a cost of almost £40 million. Edith Thompson’s body was exhumed and taken to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, where the golden letters on her gravestone read: ‘Sleep on Beloved. Her death was a legal formality.’
Callaghan’s image of the secure hospital indicated a new form for an old idea: while the male prisoner represented the social problem of aggression, the female prisoner represented the ‘private’ problem of the body or the maladjustment of the mind. He’s bad, she’s mad. Women’s imprisonment troubles deep-rooted ideas of womanhood and so the place of their incarceration is often given a name other than ‘prison’: castle, hospital, immigration removal centre. Joanna Kelley, governor of Holloway between 1959 and 1966, thought it ought to be called Holloway Hospital. The name would have been appropriate enough: by the end of the 1960s, five thousand doses of medicine – Mogadon, Valium, Largactil – were handed out at Holloway every week and more than a thousand medical reports completed annually. By the 1980s, more psychotropic drugs were prescribed there than in any other prison in the country. ‘First they come round and ask you: “Who needs drugs?”’ one former prisoner said of the Holloway psychiatric unit C1, where women were isolated for up to 22 hours a day. ‘And then they ask: “Who wants drugs?”’
Some aspects of life at Holloway did improve after the prison was rebuilt. Lock-up time was later in the day and inmates were allowed to wear their own clothes. There were counselling groups, a swimming pool and gym; a hair salon (‘Hairy Poppins’) was introduced where prisoners could work towards an NVQ. There were fall-offs in the rates of suicide and self-harm. But the prison was still overcrowded, understaffed and unsafe. A new floor-to-ceiling window was repeatedly smashed and finally boarded up. At the beginning of the 1970s there were 800 women in prison nationwide; by 1980 there were 1500. When Greenham Common campaigners broke into Holloway in 1983 to protest against the incarceration of political activists and were arrested for disturbing the peace, their lawyer argued that there was no peace to breach. In 1986, Marc Sancto, a transgender inmate, was found trying to strangle himself in his cell. An hour later he had hanged himself with his cardigan. In 1995, David Ramsbotham, the chief prison inspector, walked out of Holloway halfway through a week-long inspection, appalled by rat infestations, heavy-handed security and bullying. In 2007, Jean Corston’s landmark review of the treatment of women with vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, undertaken after the deaths of six women at Styal Prison, recommended systemic change. Among her recommendations were a reduction in the use of strip-searching – like force-feeding, a form of state-sanctioned assault – and keeping non-violent offenders out of prison.
What’s changed ? Nearly four thousand women are currently imprisoned in the UK, most of them for non-violent offences like shoplifting (Davies says one woman was sent to Holloway for jumping out of a taxi without paying). The disproportionate increase in the female prison population over the last couple of decades – between 1995 and 2010, it more than doubled in England and Wales, from 1979 to 4236 – has little to do with changes in female offending, instead reflecting the decision of the courts to recommend custody more frequently for less serious offences. It is difficult therefore to see Holloway’s closure, which was announced by George Osborne in November 2015, as involving a move away from incarceration. It looks more like a large-scale ‘ghosting’, the term used by prisoners to describe their abrupt transfer from one prison to another (one male former prisoner recently told me he had been ghosted 32 times in six and a half years). Every week a group of thirty prisoners, out of the five hundred women who were at Holloway at the time of Osborne’s announcement, was moved out. Most of them were sent to HMP Bronzefield in Middlesex or HMP Downview in Surrey (which wasn’t fully up and running at the time two hundred inmates arrived). The transfer was justified on grounds of cost and counterbalanced by news of expansion elsewhere (nine new prisons). ‘More humane conditions’ were also promised. Holloway had specialist women’s services to which inmates lost access and which other prisons don’t replicate. After campaigns to reclaim the site, it has now been sold to the Peabody Group, which promises to provide six hundred affordable homes.
In 2016, 22 women died in prison, 12 by suicide, the highest number of self-inflicted deaths since 2004. On 11 January that year, three months before Holloway closed, Sarah Reed, a working-class woman of colour with severe mental health problems, killed herself while on remand there awaiting medical reports assessing her fitness to plead. The jury at the inquest wasn’t convinced Reed had intended to take her own life. Her antipsychotic medication had been reduced two months earlier after concerns about its effect on her lungs, but no other medication had been prescribed in its place. Reed was left in a distressed state. A total of 11 visits by her mother, partner and solicitors were cancelled by prison authorities in the three months leading up to her death, and in the few days before it she was locked in a cell in a segregation unit without any heating or hot water.
Davies’s claim that women are often criminalised for a failure to conform to norms of feminine behaviour helps explain the disproportionate imprisonment of black women in UK prisons. They are more likely than white women to be given custodial sentences and less likely to be granted bail. Focus groups containing black, Asian and minority ethnic women interviewed in 2016 by the charities Agenda and Women in Prison reported that they were treated differently by prison staff (‘For a white person it’s mental health … for a black person it’s classed as anger management issues’) and experienced a ‘double disadvantage’ at trial, where they were often faced by juries dominated by older white men. In 2017, the Labour MP David Lammy’s independent review into the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system found that for every hundred white women sentenced to custody for drug offences, there were 227 black women. For black men the figure is 141 for every hundred white men.
‘Very few female prisoners have ever posed a threat to society; instead most have been victims of circumstance and, in one way or another, victims of men,’ Davies writes. Most women in prison have complex needs and vulnerabilities: 46 per cent are survivors of domestic violence; 53 per cent report having experienced childhood abuse. Nearly a third have a previous psychiatric admission, compared with 10 per cent of male prisoners. The ripple effect of sending women to prison – on children, communities and housing – is greater. ‘Men have women to look after them, to bring in clothes and money, while women don’t,’ the penal reformer Frances Crook writes. But we have to move beyond seeing womanhood as a narrative of victimhood and struggle. The trouble with thinking about women’s prisons as exceptions to the male norm is that it tends to reinforce the association between masculinity and lawlessness, and thereby legitimates the mass incarceration of men. In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis doesn’t write about ‘women and prisons’ but about the way notions of gender affect systems of state punishment. To see the male prisoner as the norm undermines the abolitionist project; if it is more natural for a man to be imprisoned than a woman, it can follow that it is more natural to imprison a person of colour or a member of another marginalised group. Of course, women don’t have to be presented as victims. They can be outlaws, bad girls and rebels, activists and adulteresses. Davies is keen to include such figures in her history, but the narrative allure of the ‘bad girl’ – representative of some cultural fantasy of female transgression – romanticises the fate of the female prisoner and is a distraction from our collective accountability.