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As 2016 drew to a close, activists and former prisoners gathered outside prisons across the country in lively ‘noise demonstrations’. From Manchester to London, protesters armed with drums, sound systems and banners gathered at prison gates in solidarity with prisoners and to rally against the injustices of imprisonment. At the same time as these annual noise protests, something very different was happening at the site of the recently-closed Holloway women’s prison in north London.
There, local residents and campaigners came together to erect a community art installation. Washing lines of clothes were hung between the trees outside the red brick walls of the dark and empty prison. The clothing and banners bore statistics about women in prison and children born in the jail, and testimonies of women who had been imprisoned there. Banners were laid on the ground offering messages of hope and calling for ‘social justice not criminal justice’ and ‘homes not jails’.
Holloway resident Tiffany, who took part in the protest, told me that, ‘Hanging clothes on the washing line was powerful. It felt so personal and really brought to the fore the humanity, the real-ness, of the women who lived behind the prison walls. The baby clothes, though – that was what hit me the hardest. Watching these tiny clothes flap in the cold winter wind in the shadow of the prison was heartbreaking.’
The only women’s prison in London, for many of its inmates Holloway provided a place of relative safety and refuge, offering a roof and a bed, access to drug or mental health treatment and time away from abusers. As a prison, though, it was still a place of violence, suicide and distress. It offered a depressing and oppressive form of social housing for women with complex needs – a sad indictment of society’s failure to provide safety in the community.
Claire Cain of Women in Prison, a charity working in all women’s prisons in England, says that, ‘Before its closure, most of the Holloway women were moved to a re-opened prison out of London. Under-resourced and dirty, it was not yet ready for their arrival and many women were locked up for 22 hours a day.’ While the situation has gradually improved, she says it is not enough: ‘The prison estate is in a worse state since Holloway’s closure and 2016 saw the highest number of deaths of women in prison on record.’
As part of its 2015 autumn statement the government announced a £1.3 billion ‘prison-building revolution’ to be funded by the sale of inner-city jails. It claimed it as a ‘win-win’ policy that would also free up land in densely populated areas and allow for the construction of up to 3,000 new homes. New prisons would offer better conditions for prisoners and the new homes would help to solve the housing crisis.
The closure of inner-city prisons and the plan to rebuild on cheaper land offers obvious parallels with the bedroom tax and gentrification. The most disadvantaged are to be shipped out of the city – out of sight, out of mind. Many fear that the government’s plans will follow the usual route of public land being sold to profiteering private developers, who build luxury flats unaffordable to the local community. Property experts suggest a starting price of £500,000 for private flats on the Holloway site, 15 times the average income in the borough.
There is mounting local interest in the future of the site, however, and calls are growing for the land to be developed for the benefit of the community.
The local MP is none other than Jeremy Corbyn, who told a public meeting in November: ‘This is the biggest opportunity in my memory of being Islington North MP to alleviate the chronic housing crisis in this area of London . . . We don’t need to see London damaged by more luxury housing for the few. If we can establish a plan of community benefit, with good access to community facilities, including possibly a women’s centre, this is a very big opportunity.’
Local housing activists have also called for the public need to be put first. Andy Bain, a member of the Islington branch of the Axe the Housing Act campaign group, says: ‘In both a local and national context, what happens at Holloway is very important. It should be remembered that the Holloway site is still owned by the government and is, in effect, public land. It could fire the starting gun for a new council house building revolution.’
Reflecting on the most recent protest, Tiffany told me, ‘It was encouraging to see so many people gathering to remember, to acknowledge, to fight for something better. If we can rally round on a cold new year’s eve, surely we’re a formidable force to demand the site’s future be one which provides support to women.’
Locally, there is cautious optimism. The Reclaim Holloway coalition has brought together the nearby community, women’s organisations, and housing and criminal justice activists. The mooted closure of Pentonville prison, a half-mile from the Holloway site, offers the potential of a whole-area regeneration including affordable homes and community services.
Maureen Mansfield of Reclaim Holloway says that, ‘Women imprisoned on this site were disproportionately from black and minority ethnic communities and the majority were poor, with traumatic histories, suffering from mental health and addiction issues. Instead of punishment they need access to safe and secure housing, therapeutic support and adequately resourced services. We have a chance here to build social justice solutions outside the criminal justice system, including addressing local housing need, but there is so much potential for the site.’
Parallel to the campaigning developments, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, an independent policy unit, has launched a two-year project to produce a community plan for the site. It will be informed by the wishes and needs of those in the borough, as well as people involved in the criminal justice system. Part community consultation, part community empowerment project, the plan will seek to demonstrate the possibilities that could emerge from prison closures and what socially just alternatives can exist in their footprint.
This initiative offers an opportunity to think through how best to tackle a range of social problems in a local context. By bringing people together to focus on addressing housing, health, environmental sustainability and other community needs it should be possible to create a practical yet transformative vision of what could exist in place of prisons.
Rebecca Roberts is senior policy associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies