Fight to keep Holloway Prison a sanctuary for women after dismay at developers’ plans

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When Michael Gove announced the closure of the “inadequate and antiquated” Holloway Prison in November 2015, a cry went up on the landings. “Everyone inside was crying,” says Mandy Ogunmokun, of Voices for Holloway.

“Officers, nurses, the girls. It was heavy in there. It was like being hit with a baseball bat.”

Holloway may have been built by Victorians to bring “terror to evil-doers”. But it was also a community, and for thousands of women from 1902, it was home.

It is also a historic site where 300 suffragettes were held and many force fed as they fought for votes for women.

So, when housing association Peabody bought the decommissioned prison from the Ministry of Justice in 2019 for £81million, campaigners called for a landmark women’s building, with a museum and ­therapeutic services to be part of the proposed new housing estate. Now, plans by developers have been met with derision and dismay from women who were once part of Holloway.

Helen Pankhurst, grandaughter of suffragette Sylvia
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“They’ve stuck a space under a massive tower block and called it a Women’s Centre,” says Mandy, who spent decades in and out of the prison, first as an offender and later as a drug and alcohol worker. “It’s insulting. Holloway saved my life. That land represents a lot of broken women.

“I feel like the developers have been leading us on when really we weren’t wanted. Once a prisoner, always a prisoner. When we show we’ve transformed our lives, they say ‘well done, but shut up’.”

Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of suffragette leader Sylvia, also says the plans need rethinking. “My grandmother Sylvia and great-grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst were imprisoned in Holloway, as were hundreds of other suffragettes and political women campaigning on other causes,” she says.

“The badge of disgrace was turned into a badge of honour – literally in the suffragettes’ case, with a Holloway brooch given to those who were imprisoned for the cause. The prison has gone but we remember.”

Ssuffragatte Sylvia (Estelle) Pankhurst
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The women say that 24 out of the 28 women’s groups consulted on the plans – which will put 985 flats into the 10-acre site – object to them.

“A single floor at the bottom of a 14-floor tower block is not a ‘building’,” says Niki Gibbs, a local ­resident and artist. “The Women’s Garden, as planned, will be dark, windy and overlooked by many apartments – an inappropriate design for a contemplative legacy garden.”

Campaigners’ objections range from lack of space to architectural design, which they say is inappropriate for a legacy building. Even the tiles, they say, are reminiscent of the prison building and could be traumatic.

“For those of us who were prolific offenders, Holloway represents a huge part of our lives,” Mandy says, when I meet her and other former Holloway inmates at the inspirational women’s project, Treasures, that she founded.

“I was 19 when I first went into Holloway and I was in and out for 20 years. I knew I was safer in there than when I was outside.”

Site will be used for flats
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One woman I meet, the daughter and granddaughter of sex workers, describes how she was sold for sex at age four. She later became a heroin user who committed petty crime and sold sex for drugs before turning her life around to help others.

“No one wants their children to be born addicted,” she says. “It happens because of the abuse we have experienced ourselves.”

Figures show more than half of women in jail have been abused and more than 85% of offences committed by women are non-violent and linked to poverty, abuse or drug addiction.

The Holloway women want support services for abuse and trauma survivors to be given at the new centre, plus drug and alcohol services that recognise addiction is a mental health issue.

Vivian, 52, gave birth in Holloway at its mother and baby unit. “I was in there on and off from the age of 15 to 45,” she says. “My son was born in Holloway, I was on remand.”

Another woman says: “I was 17 when I got sent to its borstal wing. I had stomach pains and the doctor said I was six months pregnant. I couldn’t feed the baby because of the abuse.”

The women speak of a revolving door of abuse, addiction, crime, prison and release that repeated over and over in their lives, before therapy helped them come to terms with their abuse.

One says: “Holloway was a place of self-harm, anger and violence. But it was also a community.

“The women you’re with, you make the most of the situation, you have laughs. So, the site holds so much of that as well, that’s what people don’t understand. Outside, I would say I’m using drugs because I’m not at home. Home was Holloway.

“We recently went on a site visit back to the prison. Every time we walked past a cell it was like a wave of memory, I could remember who I’d been in there with. I’d been in every single one of them. I felt the strength of all the women who had been in there, me included.”

Another ex-offender, now an artist who asked not to be named, says: “The first man that abused me used to put his hand over my mouth, and after that I could never say the word ‘help’.

“I was 24 the last time I was in, 36 years ago. When I came out, I couldn’t read. I’d lost my teeth. I had abscesses where I’d injected. There was no one to support me. It was just off you go.

“That’s why we need this Women’s Building – to provide the services we never had. We want to create a space that keeps women out of prison and helps them when they come out. What is on offer at the moment is just not good enough.”

Peabody said: “The Women’s Building and garden at Holloway will be an exceptional facility, which is twice the size of the facilities available when the prison was opened and pretty much the same location. The private garden next to the building will be a fantastic and tranquil space for the women using the facilities.

“Before the buildings come down, we’ve commissioned a legacy project to explore how the site’s history can be honoured in the future development.”

Islington Council said: “The council is assessing the application and is unable to comment in detail on anything relating to the application.

“If the planning application is approved, 5% of 460 social-rent homes will be allocated to women affected by the criminal justice system.”

The council’s consultation closes on December 21.

Mandy adds: “We call ourselves Voices of Holloway because we never get heard. Everyone who has been abused, we all have a silent tape over our mouths. Now, they’re listening to everyone else but us.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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