Samuel Agbamu tells the story of North London’s H.M. Prison Holloway and explains why it is a key site of struggle in the fight against social cleansing, as well as institutionalised sexism and racism.
Credit: Aoife Greenham
Holloway prison has a long and dark history. Opened in 1852 as a mixed gender prison, it became a women’s prison in 1903. Its foreboding Victorian Gothic turrets and crenulations were replaced by non-descript red-brick walls when it was completely rebuilt in the 1970s and 80s, hiding the misery inside with its banal elegance. Now it stands empty, a squatting behemoth at the side of Camden Road. Busses pass day and night, ferrying people across North London, and Holloway’s unblinking floodlights maintain their vigil. Security personnel continue to patrol around its perimeter, but now they’re watching out for graffiti writers rather than escaping prisoners. The walls enclose over five acres of prime real estate – public land, at least for now. They say there’s a housing crisis in the capital, while the cold, bright lights shine in the prison’s empty corridors. What does the future hold for the site? What will its legacy be? Nothing is certain except for the necessity to use the opportunity gained with the closure of Holloway prison for collective good, the needs of the community and those of the women, non-binary, and trans people who were caged within its walls. When the likes of “starchitect” Paul Schumacher advocate the abolition of social housing in London, it’s time for us to reclaim what is ours.
The largest women’s prison in Western Europe at its closing, the list of its victims is unfathomable. Among the names of its famous inmates are rebels and revolutionaries, campaigners for women’s suffrage and women fighters of the Easter Rising. More recently, hunger strikers from Yarl’s Wood were taken to Holloway. Five women were judicially killed on the site, including Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK, in 1955. This is not to say that deaths in Holloway ended then. Only in 2016, Sarah Reed died in the prison. Having struggled with mental health problems and the loss of her daughter in 2003, Reed was the victim of police brutality in 2012. PC James Kiddie was caught on CCTV dragging Reed by her hair, punching and kicking her to her face. Why? She was caught shoplifting on Regent Street. Kiddie, having been subject to two previous complaints, one for discriminatory comments, was ordered to pay Reed £60 and given a community order. But Reed is dead, her family prevented by the authorities from seeing her body. The last Christmas card Reed’s mother received from her daughter read, “Mum, this is just to say Merry Xmas … PS. Get me out of jail.” Sarah Reed, victim of racist, sexist state violence, who languished behind those red walls which thousands pass every day, was one of 314 people, 19 of whom women, to have died in UK prisons so far this year. This is the highest number on record since 1990. It’s clear that prisons reproduce violence, sanctioned and executed by the state. 46% of the 13,500 women imprisoned in the UK every year have suffered domestic violence and 53% report having been abused as a child; prisons constitute a part of this vicious cycle. The struggle for Holloway’s legacy is critical in claiming the site of violence against women, trans and non-binary people for something positive. Stories such as Sarah’s cannot be forgotten.
Credit: Aoife Greenham
In 2015’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that the prison, deemed to be inadequate by inspectors and where there were around 35 reported incidents of self-harm every week, would be closed as part of a £1.3 billion overhaul of UK prisons. This move was taken without the consultation of the Prison Governors’ Association who voiced their “major concern” about the move. It is claimed that this overhaul will save the government £80 million per annum. And yet as this year’s Autumn Statement has shown, austerity has not, does not, and will not work; it is senseless suffering inflicted on the most vulnerable of society. Holloway’s closure is completely congruous with this governments prioritising of profit over people, within a wider context of disinvestment in public services, which disproportionately affects women, trans and non-binary people, and people of colour. For example, between 2010 and 2014, 32 women’s refuges were closed. Even so, the government has already ruled out the opportunity for a women’s centre to feature as part of the future plans for the Holloway site.
The women imprisoned in Holloway first heard of the planned closure with notices slipped under their cell doors, telling them that they were going to be moved. They were rushed into prisons on the periphery of London, away from their friends, families and communities. The MoJ claimed that H.M.P. Downview in Surrey, to which many of the women were moved, more than two hours away from Holloway, would offer some of the best facilities in women’s prisons. Yet when the women from Holloway arrived, the prison was unprepared. The women are denied of the specialist units at Holloway, such as psychological intervention, and live in intolerable conditions. It is reported that women in Bronzefield prison, another of the prisons in Surrey taking some of the women from Holloway, are forced to share cells, while upon arrival at Downview, the women were confined to their cells for 22 hours a day. And Holloway continues to stand empty.
Now place this against the backdrop of the housing situation in London, and Islington specifically. There are around 20,000 households on Islington’s housing waiting list, while properties in the private sector have seen a 6-fold price increase only in the last decade: the average property on the private market in Islington fetches between £450,000 and £550,000, affordable to only 20% of the borough. A third of the Islington’s residents are forced by the depredations of the private property market to move elsewhere every year, while Holloway stands empty. This is only set to get worse with this government’s housing act, a ruthless, ideologically-driven attack on social housing. Yet as the recent defeat of the “pay to stay” policy shows, these attempts to socially cleanse London can be opposed and beaten. This is where Holloway prison comes in. This August, it was announced that Bilfinger GVA had won the contract from the MoJ to advise on the sale of site, laying the foundations for a potential £2 billion development of as many as 5000 homes. Yet it remains uncertain how the land will be used.
Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, sees this as the biggest opportunity in his memory to do something good in view of the chronic housing shortage in the borough and city-wide, and to think about alternatives to prison: an opportunity, he says, that should be grasped with both hands. There is a struggle to be won, but it is one which, if lost, says Kate Paradine of Women in Prison, bodes ill for the wider struggles embodied in the Holloway site. Yet “don’t let anyone tell you we can’t win…but let’s not kid ourselves – this will be a fight,” urges Eileen Short from Defend Council Housing. There is a wealth of precedents of such struggles fought and won; Short takes heart in the recent defeat of the “pay to stay” policy, and sees Greenham Common as a template for how to wage land-based struggles in the UK.
The timeline for planning the redevelopment of the land is hazy. Preliminarily, the council must come up with a housing brief (Holloway Planning Brief – HPB) for March/April next year and the value of the site will be set according to what the plan will be. Islington Council aim to build 500 new council houses before 2019 and are on track to exceed this aim, if housing association homes are taken into account. This is commendable progress but doesn’t hide the fact that Holloway, as public land, cannot be turned into private assets. While there are people without adequate housing, Holloway cannot continue to stand empty. Gary Heather, a Finsbury Park councillor, sent a strong message at a local meeting held on the 26th November, about the future of the site: “we need to put a marker down and get organised”.
The groundwork of a strong movement organised around the site is already in place. Reclaim Holloway is a coalition of campaigners, local people, prisoners and ex-prisoners working towards a vision for the Holloway site which will be for the collective good of the community and the people formerly incarcerated there. On the evening of the 12th November, a demonstration was held outside the prison to highlight how the closure of the prison has affected and continues to affect the women formerly incarcerated there, to show how the selloff of the prison will impact upon the people living in the surrounding area, and to commemorate those who have lost their lives in prison. Despite the dark, damp autumn night, a large crowd turned out, each approaching the questions posed by the prison’s closure from a personal angle. Fire lanterns were lit to commemorate women who had passed away in prison, and as their light disappeared into the overcast sky, the crowd stood in silent reflection, a profoundly moving experience. The speakers spoke on the issues highlighted by the future of the Holloway site: social housing; community space; prisoner support; justice for deaths at the hands of the state; prison alternatives; and support services, especially for women. As the crowd dispersed at the end of the demonstration, there was a palpable sense that this struggle, which represents the opportunity to unite a diverse range of fights towards a more just and equitable society, has real momentum and a very good shot at winning.
The land is now a blank canvas and a key locus in the struggle against the social cleansing of our city. Of all the London boroughs, Islington has the least green space. We don’t need another development of unaffordable housing in this city, more cannibalising of public assets for private gain, pushing people out of their city with the prohibitively expensive cost of living. We need visions for transformative uses of public spaces, incorporating social services, services for women which are currently sustaining senseless cuts, green space. But, in Eileen Short’s words, “let’s not just talk about it – let’s win it.”
Credit : Aoife Greenham