Holloway residents could be forgiven for not knowing their local prison had closed. HMP Holloway shut its gates for the last time this summer, less than a year after George Osborne’s brief announcement in his 2015 Autumn Statement that “old Victorian prisons in our cities that are not suitable for rehabilitating prisoners will be sold”.
But to those who passed outside the site each day, it was as though nothing had changed. The towering walls remained standing, security guards still manned the entrance. Yet for those housed within, the reality could not have been more different. For the inmates of Holloway were not made aware of the closure until it was upon them.
Prisoners have spoken about slips of paper under cell doors and hurried plans to begin the move to other sites. Two hundred of them were rushed to HMP Downview, in Surrey, a recently re-opened prison that simply wasn’t prepared to support their arrival. Many were locked in single cells for up to 22 hours a day. The trip from Islington to Downview takes two hours – that’s two trains and a bus ride. So it is no wonder the number of visits from friends, family and support services to the former residents of Holloway has fallen.
Today, Holloway prison stands empty. But the site is unlikely to be unoccupied for long. In his statement, Osborne promised that “by selling these old prisons we will create more space for housing in our inner-cities”, saying that he wanted to “build homes that people can buy”. The plan to convert the site into housing appears to have outlived the Chancellor’s time in office, but the question of affordability has been forgotten. Property sources have estimated that the sale of the site could fetch around £200 million, and if the government does sell the land to developers, it is likely that the prison buildings, including the recently refurbished visitors’ centre, will be demolished. Private, ‘luxury’ flats will take their place.
Although the announcement of the prison’s closure went largely unnoticed, the controversial decision to turn the public land into private property has not escaped attention. In fact, a coalition of individuals and organisations has joined forces under the name Reclaim Holloway to campaign for a community alternative to the site’s sale. This group, composed of Islington residents, campaigners for social housing, prison reform, women’s rights and local interests, hopes they can halt the government plans if they can offer an alternative use for the eight-acre plot.
Becka, a member of Reclaim Holloway, embodies the group’s diverse interests and expertise. She works for the Radical Housing Network, volunteers in a women’s centre, and grew up just down the road from the prison. According to her, the breadth of the coalition is its strength: “We don’t live single issue lives, our social problems are really knotted together, and so with the campaign, we’re practising intersectionality in a really concrete way,” she says.
Nevertheless, with so many different voices wanting to be heard, the risk is that consensus on what to do with the site may not be reached before Bilfinger GVA, the developer enlisted by the government to manage the sale, makes its next move. This was apparent at the first community consultation held by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) who, like Reclaim Holloway, want to develop a vision for the land that will serve local and social needs.
At this meeting, some of the possible alternatives were discussed by a panel of politicians, prison and housing campaigners, and the local residents who are concerned about the area’s future. The discussion was respectful, it stimulated debate, but the volume of different suggestions raised made it hard to envisage a clear and convincing alternative being formulated any time soon. The possibility of turning the site into genuinely affordable housing was the first to be suggested, and it was an idea to which the assembled crowd returned again and again.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who joined the panel as the borough’s MP, lamented the displacement of families who could not pay the high rents (in September, the Mayor’s Office published data that revealed that the median weekly rental rate for a two-bedroom property in Islington was £450, more than £100 higher than the city-wide median) and spoke of the “crying need to deal with the housing crisis” to loud and lengthy applause. Given that 49 per cent of Islington residents live in social housing, this was not surprising.
Other attendees were more interested in questions of gender. The legacy of Holloway as a historically ‘female site’, central to the battle for Suffrage, was also emphasised by those who want to see it turned into a support space for vulnerable women.
Kate Paradine, a representative from the charity Women in Prison, reminded the crowd that most female prisoners serve sentences of six months or less: enough time to lose their homes, jobs and children, but not enough time to make lasting change in their lives such as overcoming addiction or gaining qualifications. As a result, rates of recidivism are extremely high and some people felt the former prison should be used as a space to help women at risk of committing crimes or who have been released and require support.
Although some ideas were more achievable than others (one man simply wanted to ensure that bird boxes would be built), it is hard to take objection with the general thrust of the campaign’s aims to make the land serve local and social needs.
When I put this to Becka, she laughed. “In theory, no one is against this. It looks as though we have a clear path, but in reality it is much more difficult than that.”
The risk that Holloway could become a party political issue, one that divides people according to political leaning rather than unites them for the community benefit, must be acknowledged. Although neither CCJS nor Reclaim Holloway are affiliated with any party, Corbyn appeared to have pulled in a crowd at the consultation. I was almost late for the meeting but a middle-aged woman on the door mistook my red face and quick pace for concern that I might have missed the Labour leader’s speech. “Don’t worry, Jeremy’s not here yet” she reassured me with a knowing smile as she handed me a copy of the Socialist Worker.
Similarly, the intersections of questions of race must not be ignored. One member of the audience declared the room to be “the whitest one I’ve been in since I went to see the Sound of Music”. He had a point. Although Reclaim Holloway meetings tend to attract a more varied crowd, the faces attending the CCJS consultation did not reflect the diversity of Islington (in 2016, 52 per cent of residents were in Black or Minority Ethnic Groups.) As race is still an influencing factor in the lives of the borough’s residents (children growing up in BME households in Islington are more likely than white children to be living in poverty and black residents are are three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police than their white counterparts), it would surely be a missed opportunity if support for BME services, a suggestion hardly touched upon at this first meeting, was not considered in the debate.
Whatever the conclusions reached by Reclaim Holloway and CCJS as to the future of Holloway, they know that it will be a long battle; the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group campaigned for 20 years to secure community benefits from the development at King’s Cross. However, it is a fight that they say they are willing to go the distance for. This is only the first prison closure in London, likely to be followed shortly by nearby Pentonville, and so both the government and the campaigners know that what happens in Holloway will be precedent setting. As Paradine said: “If the battle is lost over Holloway, there is little hope for the other prisons being closed.”
But in spite of the struggle ahead, the campaign has, to some extent, already succeeded. Becka is keen to emphasise that “out of sight, out of mind” UK prisons are places where social need is criminalised and then disappeared behind high walls. By bringing the conversation about the city’s prison policy into public discourse, Reclaim Holloway and CCJS are helping to make visible that which is too often hidden. As Osborne’s plan to move these spaces out of city-centres and so even further away from public view comes to fruition, Becka believes that there could not be a more vital time to engage with our troubling reliance on prisons as a remedy for our social problems.
And so Reclaim Holloway and CCJS will continue to meet and will continue to discuss. For now, the high walls at Holloway still stand. A security guard still mans the entrance. But thanks to campaigners, local residents could no longer be forgiven for not knowing that the prison had closed. What happens next could spell radical change for the city’s prison policy. Or it could turn into another unaffordable block of apartments. The conversation has begun./ 5 December, 2016