Understanding Holloway Prison: a forbidding Victorian institution or a beacon of hope and humanity?

“Nothing good has come out of closing Holloway”. Not, perhaps, a statement you would expect to hear about a prison closure – but then, I learned much today that surprised me.

Kudos to Islington Museum for hosting another fine exhibition – last year, I was bowled over by ‘Banners of Spain’, which focused on the Islington Brigaders. 2018’s subject is ‘Echoes of Holloway Prison: Hidden Voices’ and comes two years after the prison closed. The exhibition sets out to “capture and reflect stories of this highly significant place meaning that even now it has gone, the voices and echoes of Holloway Prison will remain”.

The quote that begins this post comes from an absorbing video made by volunteers for the Museum. In it, people with connections to Holloway, ranging from prison abolitionists, teachers, prison officers and ex-prisoners (including Vicky Pryce, who you may remember was jailed for perverting the course of justice after she accepted driving licence penalty points incurred by her MEP husband Chris Huhne) talk about their differing experiences of Holloway.

What struck me most was how warmly they all spoke of it, acknowledging the nurturing environment created by officers and prisoners. Vicky Pryce describes it as a “friendly environment where women with very difficult problems were treated with dignity” and praises the staff for their compassion. As Holloway Prison’s cookery teacher emphasises: “You cannot stereotype about the kind of person who goes to prison; it could be any one of us”.

The Gardens, Holloway Prison
‘The Gardens at Holloway Prison’ by Erika, an ex-prisoner

Before discussing the life & times of Holloway Prison in more detail, it is worth considering what brings a woman to prison in the first place. Shockingly, England and Wales have one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe. Around 9,000 women a year are jailed, although women’s sentences tend to be very short. Equally shockingly, short custodial sentences have the worst re-offending rates, because women lose their homes, jobs and contact with families while in prison and end up homeless on release.

Regular readers will know that I am passionate about history and I was keen to understand how Holloway Prison evolved over the years – something this exhibition does an excellent job of explaining. The first fact to note is that it wasn’t always women-only. ‘Holloway Castle’ opened as a House of Correction in 1852, built by the City of London on land bought as a potential graveyard during the 1830s cholera epidemic. As the transportation of prisoners abroad ended, and use of the death penalty was massively reduced, new prisons were needed to cope with rising prison numbers.

Holloway Castle was a grand and imposing building, designed so that all prisoners could be observed at all times without knowing it. It could hold 400 men, women and children who would be reformed into useful members of society through hard work and time spent in silent reflection with God. However, the 1877 Prisons Act centralised prisons and decreed they should be make harsher in order to deter people from breaking the law. By the end of the 19th century the prison was a grim place, punitive and vermin-infested.

In 1902, ‘Holloway Prison’ became women-only and in 1906, the first suffragette was imprisoned, for “refusing to recognise laws in the making of which women had no voice”. Hundreds of other women followed, arrested as they fought for the right to vote. From 1909, many suffragettes went on hunger strike to demand their rights as political prisoners. As stories of the hunger strike appeared in the press, the government authorised force feeding by prison doctors. This led to a public outcry and huge embarrassment for the government. When World War One broke out in 1914, all suffragettes were released from prison.

Below are the Suffragette Medal presented to Diana Tyson in 1909 on her release from prison and the Hunger-Strike Medal presented to Violet Jones in 1909.

Suffragette medals

After the War, reforms began to tackle conditions and reoffending rates at Holloway Prison. Humanity and kindness were seen as the best way to rehabilitation; education classes enabled women to learn new skills and work was paid, so women could buy make-up, cigarettes and food. Cells were better-lit and ventilated, the building repainted and flowers planted in the grounds.

When war broke out again, in 1939, Holloway Prison was partly evacuated. Those with fewer than three months to serve were released and most staff and prisoners transferred. Prisoners held at Holloway during the war included ‘enemy alien’ refugees prior to internment, many of them Jewish, and fascists held under the ‘Defence of the Realm’ Act.

By 1945, Holloway Prison was filthy and understaffed and offered little chance of rehabilitation. Little changed until the 1960s, when society’s view of women in prisons evolved into ‘mad not bad’ and focus shifted on to women’s mental health. With the Prison’s oppressive Victorian building remaining a major problem, proposals for a rebuild became more insistent.

Holloway Prison was pulled down in 1970. Despite considerable opposition, it was rebuilt and the new building was finished in 1985. By this time, however, the world had changed again. More women were being imprisoned, for a wider range of criminal activity. Holloway soon became overcrowded, with officers finding its confined spaces harder to control. Both prisoners and staff felt unsafe; self-harming, vandalism and arson were rife. The new education block and pool were unused and in 1986 prison officers began a six-week strike.

Gradually, Holloway Prison saw improvements. Prisoners with severe mental health issues were transferred to hospitals, relations between staff and prisoners became more caring and the new facilities were brought into use.

Sadly, this progress did not last. By the 1990s, prison life was bleak again and the Chief Inspector of Prisons walked out halfway through a 1995 inspection, shocked by appalling living conditions and the cruelty of the regime. Holloway became a case study for the 2007 Corston Report on women in prisons. A radical rethink was needed: should women who posed no threat to society be imprisoned?

There is much more that I could say here about how Holloway Prison’s problems continued into the early 2000s – and how these problems were addressed, leading to a positive report in its 2013 inspection and taking us full circle back to the video with which I began this post. However, I’m conscious that this post is already quite long and instead would encourage you to seek out the exhibition, which speaks so eloquently on this subject, for yourself – you won’t regret it.

I’ll conclude by saying that in 2015, a government spending review announced plans to close ‘Victorian city centre jails’ – including Holloway – leaving prisoners, officers and civilian staff shocked and fearful for the future. On 17 June 2016, the last prisoner ever to be held at Holloway was transferred elsewhere.

Was the decision to close “antiquated and inadequate” Holloway Prison the right one? To this day, opinions remain mixed and are explored in the final section of the exhibition. I was interested to read that many ex-prisoners felt they had lost their “home”, a familiar place in which they knew the rules. What do you think? Please let me know by leaving your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ box below.

The Closure of Holloway
‘The Closure of Holloway’, also by Erika


    • Thank you, Laura – I really appreciate that. Do check out the exhibition if you get chance; my post just scratched the surface of Holloway’s history and there’s an array of fascinating artefacts/memorabilia on display, as well.


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