The government’s ‘prison building revolution’ will benefit neither vulnerable women nor Londoners
When the closure of the largest female prison in Europe was announced, it was greeted with hope. Why wouldn’t the many organisations that knew the realities of female prison life celebrate? Nearly ten years on from the Corston Report in 2007, was the recommendation that large prisons be replaced with small custodial units finally being recognised? Did this closure represent a shift in how England and Wales imprisons women?
In recent months, the government has outlined a ‘prison building revolution’, where old Dickensian prisons will be closed, the land will be sold to create more inner city housing, and nine new ‘humane’ and modern prisons will be built in their place. On the surface, these reforms, which commence in July with the closure of HMP Holloway, are being publically framed as providing both better opportunities to women in prison, and affordable housing for the people of London. However, as time has passed from the announcement of Holloway’s closure, to the cranes now ready for demolition, there is little evidence to suggest we are embarking on a new model of women’s imprisonment after all. The Reclaim Justice Network (RJN) believes the government’s claims are fallacies, and the real focus of the reforms are to sell off state assets and public land, privatisation, and an iatrogenic expansion of the criminal justice system.
The closure of Holloway, a prison that is at least somewhat lodged in the minds of the public, can be used as a catalyst for two new conversations.
Firstly, communities can have the opportunity to explore their relationships with prisons, their expectations of them and to consider whether we are pacified with assurances that women will be housed ‘more humanely’ in new, modern prisons.
Secondly, with insufficient social housing being built alongside London’s increasing population, Right to Buy schemes, rising house prices and rents, and the increasing amount of London homes being brought for capital gains, what does the community want to do with the publically owned Islington land being sold from underneath them and the Holloway site?
Under the 2013 Women’s Estate Review, Holloway became a resettlement prison, where a woman could receive the appropriate support throughout her entire sentence, and was linked back into her local community on release. As a result, more women were released on temporary licence (ROTL), more local support services and organisations engaged with women, multi-skilled staff teams were employed and developed inter-agency relationships within the prison, whilst specialist provisions for multiple needs increased. Holloway became a London prison for London women, where they could serve their whole sentences close to family and community ties. London women who were resident in Holloway are now being dispersed around the UK to other female prisons, but largely to HMP Bronzefield, Downview & Send. To maintain solid family links, families are expected to have the time, money and robustness to navigate London transport systems. At the same time Holloway’s closure was announced, it had just received one of its best prisons inspectorate reports in decades.
Some practitioners, policy-makers and academics have argued the closure of Holloway will mean a reduction in the number of female prison spaces, which will lead to a reduction in the female prison population. It is important to remember that for women with highly complex mental health needs, Holloway provided a particular type of space in the female estate, including a Care and Separation unit. With the closure of Holloway, whether you believe prisons are the appropriate sites for such support or not, these ‘beds’ will no longer exist in the system.
The Women’s Estate Review also recommended that on the basis of its location, HMP Downview be re-rolled back to a female prison. HMP Downview, a ‘humane’ prison, has an embedded culture of prison officers ‘trading’ ROTL for sex. HMP Bronzefield, a newly purpose built ‘humane’ female prison recorded higher rates of self-harm, reoffending and cost per place than Holloway. At Bronzefield, women are now doubled up in their cells to accommodate the influx of women coming from London courts.
‘Decanting’ women from one prison to another limits their access to specialist resources they had in Holloway. Women are further away from their families and local communities in London. Does a more ‘modern’ and ‘humane’ building really outweigh these? The government has recently announced that despite their reform rhetoric, there are no plans to reduce the female or general prison population. Investment in ‘humane’ and ‘modern solutions to criminality’ overrules community focused, smaller units with specialist provision. Are these reforms really about benefitting women?
The failing of imprisonment is not rooted in the architecture or management of a single institution; it is not about Holloway being an ‘old’ prison or Bronzefield being a ‘new’ one. The problem with prison is prison – and in particular it’s use as a ‘solution’ to social problems. Building new prisons will not solve the failures of criminal justice.
The serious consequences of a lack of housing for those in need, especially vulnerable women leaving prison, has been ignored by the government. At a time when women are given sleeping bags and tents as they are released from Bronzefield, the government press forward with the promotion of ‘starter homes’ at £450,000 and Right to Buy in housing associations, private sector redevelopment schemes and automatic planning permission on brownfield sites with no sign of rent controls. A first time buyer in London needs an income of £77,000 to secure a mortgage, which is £50,000 more than the average salary in 2014. Rising rents in the private and housing association sector means that ‘affordable’ rents are defined as up to 80% of market rate, putting most housing out of the reach of those in need. Austerity, public sector reform, changes to the benefits system including the bedroom tax, and limits on housing association provision have compounded this, making inner city London living unaffordable for the majority. Recent redevelopment schemes have led to a further loss of social housing. The original plan for the Mount Pleasant site in Islington, near to Holloway, had promised a substantial proportion of ‘genuinely affordable’ flats. The Mayor of London intervened, supporting the property developers, leaving only 14% of the new flats as ‘affordable’. Are these reforms really about benefitting Londoners?
As for the Holloway site, we have been here before. In 1970, Michael O’Halloran, the former MP for Islington North, categorised the redevelopment of Holloway Prison on its current site as a public scandal. O’Halloran highlighted how scarce public land is in the borough, and suggested this should dictate decisions on any developments there. The decision to develop a prison rather than social housing would “deprive nearly 1,300 people of a decent home, and their children of somewhere to play”. In 2016, this sentiment is still relevant when society is faced with the government’s nine new prisons being built in spaces where homes could be.
The closure of Holloway appears to be neither for the benefit of women or Londoners. However, it can be used as a beneficial opportunity to question our relationship with and expectations of prison, and to come to terms with London’s housing crisis. This opportunity to frame a new conversation around imprisonment, social justice and social housing does not lie with neoliberal governments and luxury property developers. This opportunity lies within communities who are fighting structural inequalities and ideological reforms. The opportunity is ours, and you should join us in reclaiming it.
Maureen Mansfield and Hannah Pittaway are members of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group.
An edited version of this article was originally posted on Left Foot Forward.