Unheard stories from inside Holloway women’s prison

Echoes of Holloway Prison

Echoes of Holloway Prison - Credit: Archant

Two years after its closure, an exhibition at Islington Museum explores the prison’s history in Islington.

Echoes of Holloway Prison

Echoes of Holloway Prison - Credit: Archant

In 2015, then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the closure of Holloway women’s prison. Inmates found out the news on TV or through a note posted under their doors. By July 2016, the prison, which held over 500 women, was empty.

Ever since, Islington Council has been collecting important objects from HMP Holloway, as well as impassioned testimonies from former prison officers and inmates to preserve the legacy of the local landmark. A new exhibition at Islington Museum gives women whose voices are otherwise unheard a means of telling their stories.

Curator Roz Currie has been working on the exhibition for years, gathering small everyday objects used in the prison, artwork created by inmates, historical documents and first-hand accounts of life inside the prison’s walls from a range of people.

“It was a real surprise, they said they were going to shut down inner city Victorian prisons to sell off the land to make new prisons. And then in the government’s Autumn statement they said it’s going to be Holloway - but Holloway was rebuilt so it’s actually only 30 years old - everyone was really shocked,” she says, pointing out a piece of artwork created by a prisoner that depicts the closure. The image features the prison’s emblematic griffins that previously loomed at the entrance before the rebuild, men in suits surrounded by money, prison officers going to the job centre and inmates being sent away.

Currie describes Holloway as something of a “rebel” and “experimental” prison in its setup, as it had a long circular corridor that was almost like a high-street running around it, which doesn’t give prison officers the level of oversight that more traditional ‘panopticon’ designs do.

One ex-prisoner, whose testimony Currie and her team heard, said: “When Holloway closed I was broken…because there was so much love in there …Love and beyond, what the officers and the professionals gave their all to the women. I know it was a prison but a lot of great work was done in there. What is sad about Holloway....that was a lot of the girls’ home...the girls from London, that was their place of safety.”

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An account from an ex-prison officer featured in the exhibition describes how he was, and still is, devastated by the government’s decision to shut the prison down and sell the land: “It was my life. It wasn’t just a job, it went much, much deeper.”

Until its closure in June 2016, Holloway Prison was western Europe’s largest women’s prison. Converted to a female-only establishment in 1902, the prison has housed women from all over Britain. Some particularly notable inmates included suffragettes in the 1900s, when the prison became infamous for force-feeding practices and the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ legislation. The prison also housed internees during WW2 including Diana Mosley; and Ruth Ellis, who became the last woman to be executed in the UK when she was hanged in Holloway in 1955.

The exhibition highlights that the vast majority of female prisoners are some of society’s most vulnerable women, serving time for non-violent crimes, such as petty theft.

“Many of the women had impossibly chaotic lives; drug addiction problems, mental health issues, and would often use Holloway as a place to look after themselves. Their lives were so horrendous that they would go to Holloway prison to a rest - which is a slight indictment of our society,” Currie explained, adding that most of the women have now been sent to prisons in Woking or Kent which is challenging for those whose lives were based in London.

“I thought it was important to give voices to some of the people involved... What’s happening is women go to prison and they lose everything,” Currie says, which for many means they end up bouncing back into prison again for short sentences - where they rarely get access to rehabilitation services.

“I don’t know what the answer is - that’s not my job. But what I hope we can do is lay out these stories and people can have a bit more understanding of what it means to be in prisons, what it meant to be in Holloway, why Holloway closed and what should happen next.”

Since its closure, ex-prisoners, charities and activisits have been campaigning to send a message to the Ministry of Justice about what should be done with the space. Last year, Islington council ruled that 50 per cent of housing on the site must be ‘genuinely affordable’ and include a safe space for women.

Echoes of Holloway Prison runs at St John’s Street until October.