Closing Holloway

Chris Hignett describes some of the issues arising from the closure of Holloway prison and discussed at a Reclaim Justice Network meeting on Tuesday 1st March 2016.

It is not as if we have not been warned. The great American criminologist Beth Ritchie (2012)  has shown vividly how efforts by law enforcement to aid women frequently back fire to leave the poorest as badly off as ever. On Tuesday 1st March, as we listened to Maureen Mansfield from Women in Prison outline the fate that is to befall Holloway prison, the warning seemed as pertinent as ever. For Michael Gove and the Ministry of Justice the closure is hailed as an important step forward for women who fall foul of the criminal justice system. But what became apparent was that the loss of services for those women in greatest need is profound. There is no replacement for them in the new arrangements. Indeed little or no thought had been given to the closure, beyond the desire to release the real estate value of the site and to provide the opportunity for ministers to bask in the limelight, reflected by daring to  close a prison at all.

The glare is intense and  difficult to see beyond. Who could complain at the closure of a prison and a women’s prison to boot? The fact that there is no plan to reduce the use of imprisonment for women, only to disperse them to more distant less suitable establishments, can easily be overlooked. The fact that 16 specialised mental health   beds are disappearing completely, is glossed over, despite the extreme shortage of such beds in the NHS. The fact that the links developed by many voluntary services for women will be fatally disrupted, is easily dismissed. After all, realising such a valuable site for housing in Central London surely renders these complaints as mere quibbles.

But there is the rub. As our second speaker, Marjorie Mayo from Kill the Housing Bill, made clear, the site is to be sold for luxury accommodation, albeit with a small nod to the  double speak of “affordability”. Even the Visitors Centre funded by charitable donations will be sold. The opportunity to develop the kind of centre proposed by Baroness Corston to replace women’s prisons, requiring no more than a  portion of the site, is disregarded. From a proper women’s centre a real attempt to improve women’s lot within the CJS might be given a genuine opportunity to flourish. But there is no sincere commitment to such improvement for women in these plans, quite the contrary.

Beth Ritchie has also shown us how there is an interweaving of the factors that form the ceiling through which the least advantaged must try to break. The closure of Holloway is an excellent example of the ceiling in operation.  On Tuesday 1 March, the need to link the campaigns to tackle the shortage of council housing and prison closure was clear to all present and hopefully, at our next public meeting in Islington on 19th March, the launch of a unified effort to tackle these aspects of  discrimination against women will receive strong backing.  Whether this will be effective,however, may require significantly more men to take the issues seriously and turn up to challenge the collusion that maintains the status quo-than were present on Tuesday.

Chris Hignett is a member of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group.

Beth E Ritchie, (2012) Arrested Justice -black women, violence, and America’s prison nation . New York University Press.

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