Interpreting Holloway

Interpreting Holloway

I am a legal interpreter, and since I lived close by I attended many a legal visit in Holloway prison. Most of our meetings with the clients were held in the legal visits rooms at the front of the building.

Bags, phones, coats and even scarves had to be left in the lockers. Solicitors could take a laptop and folders with their papers, while I would just be allowed a pen and paper. Then it was through the bleeping gate, body search carried out, pockets checked, mouth checked for chewing gum, shoes looked at, and even tissues had to be thrown away. Finally a stamp on our hand, quite like at some festival or gig.

The legal visits area had perhaps 8-10 interview rooms, and was generally quite busy. The prisoners always had to wear a bib, like kids wear when playing team games at school during the interview. I suppose this was so that they could be easily distinguished from the female visitors.

It was only on one occasion that I was taken through almost the whole complex. We were trying to find someone for an interview and the guards were not entirely sure whether the client was in the gym, at English lessons or perhaps in the library. It did surprise me that it appeared not to be as strict and orderly as I thought a prison would be.

Walking through the yard I realised how much bigger the site was than one would expect seeing it from Camden Road, driving past or from a bus. There are several buildings with class rooms, library, swimming pool, gym and offices, and garden – though I must say Wandsworth Prison had a much nicer, very well looked after inner garden.

A number of the women I interpreted for were either victims or offenders in people trafficking and prostitution cases. One particular case involving a trafficking ring lasted for a very long time and even made it into the newspapers. Although I met several defendants in that case, I remember one young woman, in her late twenties, particularly well. I saw her several times with her solicitor. She had worked in brothels doing various functions: keeping the books of income from the various girls, organising advertisements, dealing with clients on the phone, making sure everyone got to the right place at the right time, etc. When I first saw her, not long after her arrest, she was very pale, very nervous, with huge rings around her eyes and spoke very quietly and very little. While in Holloway on remand, her appearance really improved. She stopped smoking, seemed to have put on some weight, went to the gym and also picked up English at an impressive speed. When she talked about her experience, what her role was, it made me think that she could run any kind of business very successfully, she seemed so well organised and conscientious about the business and organisational side of it.

She and others in similar situations talked about their involvement so naturally as if it was all just the norm, so much so that I had to often remind myself of the context. The back stories, why these young women got involved in prostitution, were really heart-wrenching. In prison, they had a routine; for some it was a shelter. I only saw these women on a few occasions, but I still often wonder what happened to them once released – did they return to what they used to do by getting back into the same circles, or would they have received help to be able to shift their lives?

Since Holloway closed and the women moved out to HM Prison Bronzefield in Ashford, Surrey, it has been a lot more hassle for the solicitors to arrange visits, as it is so far and the administrative systems seem also more complicated. For families to visit is also more difficult. I have never gone there as they only allow interpreters from something called the NRPSI (national register of public service interpreters) that I am not registered with.

And Holloway? It is prime land, this enormous empty site. No doubt the building cranes will move in and demolition start at some point.

Recollections of resistance

In the mid-1980s I was briefly imprisoned in Holloway for not paying a fine I was given at demonstration organised by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group outside the South African Embassy. I was in and out within a couple of days as I’d been told by Greenham Common women (who knew this stuff) that if you were meant to serve a week but gave yourself up on a Wednesday they had to let you out on Friday. The staff called women who did that ‘bed and breakfast convicts’.

I lived close to the prison, so when I got out they gave me a 30p bus fare. This didn’t matter to me as I had people picking me up, but this and many other little things gave me an impression of life inside. At night you could hear women on the mental health unit in C Wing screaming; most women in there had children they were missing desperately. But what was clear even in those few days was that there was also a sense of camaraderie among the women, a spirit of getting through the terrible times together. 

In the 1990s I used to go to the prison to visit a woman who had been convicted of a murder which she denied committing. While protesting her own innocence and trying to get an appeal, she spent her time helping other prisoners with legal cases, writing poetry and plays, painting and getting involved with every creative or mind-stimulating thing the system could offer. Unfortunately, she is still inside today.

In the 2000s, my comrades and I from North London Revolutionary Communist Group demonstrated outside the prison alongside the late Pauline Campbell. Pauline’s daughter Sarah died in Styal prison in 2003, aged just 18, and from then until her own death in 2008, Pauline dedicated her time and energy to exposing the evils of women’s imprisonment. From lobbying the House of Lords to direct action, she did everything that could be done, and for those five years on every occasion a woman took her own life in prison, Pauline mounted a demonstration outside. She would go alone if she needed, but usually had a small group of supporters with her, from the RCG or the No More Prisons Group or others. Not that many though, as although reform groups and politicians were happy to speak to her, they weren’t keen on that side of her activities at all. Outside the prison, Pauline would stand in front of a sweatbox coming from court and demand it turn around and take the women inside to ‘a place of safety’ and not into the hell-hole of prison. She would stay there until physically removed by the police. Pauline was an incredible fighter.

Now in 2017, the prison is closed. That’s good. Years of suffering have taken place on that site. But that’s not the reason for the closure. The government is simply eyeing up the real estate value. And while the women of Holloway have been shipped off to Downview and Bronzefield, the latest White Paper says there will be five new ‘community prisons’ (whatever that means) for women built in addition to these.

Meanwhile, London is being ‘socially cleansed’ and there is nowhere for anyone young and working class, or even middle class, to either rent or buy that they can possibly afford. Council housing is a thing of the past. This is an opportunity to harness the spirit of all those who have fought inside and outside of Holloway, and to bring their opposition to the locking-up and mistreating of women prisoners together with the struggle for housing in London, in order to build a strong campaign for the site of Holloway to be used as social housing and resources for women, which can provide support, safety and benefit, rather than pain and suffering.

Raid Safe

Smoking joints in the deputy governor's flat

About 1970 I remember going with a friend to a party in the deputy-governor's flat, which was above the gothic arch which then stood at the entrance. There was a lot of grass circulating and when I commented to the deputy-governor, she said it was safer from police raids than anywhere in London.

The Castle

I was remanded in Holloway 1969 then sentenced to 6months - 2years borsal training and went back to B wing to await transfer to Bullwood Hall borstal. I had a ton of problems and so was drugged heavily which was fine by me then I could convince myself I was in a castle what with the middle turret condemned cell dungeons and mazes of rooms corridors and wings. Food was gross so I became a vegetarian, slop out was also gross and punishment was cleaning the toilet with your toothbrush.

 

Bullwood hall wasnt much better

Kindness of Strangers

 I was sent to Holloway in September 2002, I was frightened and confused at the time and suffering from mental illness, when my trial started in may 2003 I went to court that first day in the only decent clothes I possessed, black trousers and a black and white shirt. I fully expected to have to wash them out each evening for the next day. On my return to my wing that first night of the trial as I walked into my cell it was full of clothes all ironed, co-ordinated and labelled from the owners with the message 'wear this and stand proud'. I did not know half of the women who had sent down outfits, I was overwhelemed. I wore a different outfit each day of my trial, it just made me feel presentable and human for the first time in months. The clothes did not help the inevitable and correct judgement of the trial, but I have never forgotten the kindness of those women who had so little but generously shared it with me

Holloway Play

 


“Are you coming to play?”

Not the most obvious opening line to use in Holloway Prison - but the one I used regularly over my five years as a volunteer as I welcomed another small child into the play area in the corner of the Visitors’ Hall.

Contrary to what you might expect, the idea was not for the children to spend their whole visit in the play area. The idea was to encourage them to spend time with their mothers - or aunts, grannies or sisters - who were in prison. As no one was allowed to bring anything into the Visitors’ Hall, having a play area meant there were always toys available. Some women, as well as cuddling the little ones and braiding their daughters’ hair, welcomed the opportunity to play games and read books with their children. But there was often a time towards the end of the one-hour visit when the adults needed to talk alone and the children were getting bored. Other women got more caught up in talking to their adult visitors and the children spent more time in the play area.

The children seldom referred to being in a prison. Some hadn’t even been told Holloway was a prison. “It’s not nice when your mummy’s sick,” one little girl told me about her seemingly healthy mother.

But most children knew. When I asked one child whether she had been here before she replied “yes, but to see other relatives.” Most distressing was realising that some children spent their Saturdays visiting mummy in Holloway and their Sundays visiting daddy in Pentonville.

When the children were in the play area I tried to make the experience of the prison visit as normal as possible. Having said that, I didn’t want to make the play area more fun and enticing for the children than spending time with the women they were visiting. I found that when children were occupied, whether colouring cards for Mummy, serving “tea” out of plastic cups or building a train track, they were likely to feel reasonably content, even in such difficult circumstances. Surprisingly there was hardly ever any bad behaviour in the play area; conversely it often felt that the children were too quiet.

The times I liked best were when children from different families started playing together. One of the women said her son didn’t usually make friends easily but you wouldn’t have known that as we watched him and another toddler rolling on the play mat together in fits of giggles. I loved seeing an older child read a story to a younger one or a few children engrossed in the dolls’ house.

I remember finding some superhero cloaks in the toy cupboard and handing them out to the nearest child. He put the blue one round his shoulders and passed the pink one to a little girl saying, “This one’s yours.” It was extremely frustrating to see her take it enthusiastically. “Let’s wash the cloaks,” said the little boy pushing them firmly into the toy washing machine. As he pulled them out, I encouraged them to turn their cloaks inside out so they would show a different colour. The boy immediately switched to the red side but the girl refused the silver and stuck with the pink. My idea of gender neutral clothes was going nowhere. But at least it was the boy who did the washing!

Motivated & Inspired

Devastated to learn that HMP Holloway will be closing. My heart is breaking for the 100's of staff who's lives are about to change and for the 500+ women who will be losing what they sadly consider home. Holloway may be a prison but for most women it is a sanctuary from this barbaric world and lives others cannot begin to imagine. Lives filled with pain, rejection, rape, violence and suffering to which substance misuse and crime are symptoms, not causes. I feel honoured to have work with such amazing women, survivors before anything else and so sad that soon I will never be able to be touched, motivated and inspired in such a unique environment again

Lost in the maze of Holloway

 

I know HMP Holloway from working for a charity. At first Holloway felt quite intimidating and confusing, not because of the women residing there but because of the institution itself. Even though I had attended the key training provided by the prison I wasn’t really sure what exactly I was allowed to do - nobody had told me what the actual rules were as a member of staff or where I was allowed to go within the prison. I felt like I sneaked around the corridors waiting to be told off by an officer for being in an unauthorised area,I got lost while walking around the prison alone, feeling a slight sense of panic at getting temporarily lost. It felt like a very strange place indeed. I can only imagine how confusing it must be being a prisoner in Holloway for the first time - not being told what’s going on, not knowing what your appointments or visits are for the week or even day ahead, not knowing where you will live when you are released, even if that is tomorrow…

Slowly but surely though I started to find my way around Holloway and started to find it quite homely. It’s a bizarre micro cosmos, a world within a world. It sits right in the middle of a busy part of London, yet when you are walking around its empty corridors, it feels so far removed from the community in which it exists. It is easy to start feeling a sense of normality and every-day life in Holloway, even though the very notion of such an institution is anything but normal. Some of the women in Holloway really have made it their home, not because it fits with anybody’s idea of an ideal home but because our society has failed to provide these women with a home of their own.

So how do I feel about the closure of Holloway? Mostly sad to be honest. When the announcement was made of Holloway’s closure some women asked themselves where they will now spend Christmas. You have to ask yourself what the victory is in closing a prison if nothing is done to challenge the homelessness, poverty and abuse facing so many of the women that end up in that prison? A reduction in the overall prison population is not just about numbers, it is about challenging the inequality and unfairness embedded in our society that ultimately leads people to imprisonment. Instead of simply closing Holloway and in effect depriving some women of their home and safety, perhaps our society and government should focus on supporting women to never end up in this maze to start with?

Ann's story: RIP Holloway

Holloway - compared to other prisons you have to give credit to their mental health services, which other prisons don't have. Especially the Day Centre, which I found incredibly useful; a safe space, calming.

A special dog I called Hunter, everyone will miss that Golden Retriever. He mooched your biscuits and tried to tear up your work, but you only had to look into his big brown eyes and all was forgiven. I hope he won't miss all the attention we gave him.

Many prisons don't have mental health services to speak of, unlike Holloway who have helped many 'characters'.

Goodbye Holloway and God Bless you.

Ann

"Miss, which one is normal?"

When you’re meeting a woman for the first time – a woman who is (more often than not) distressed, wanting answers, needing someone to listen to her – you have to get through the paperwork. Fill out those five forms – wait, do you have the one with the right funder logo for the right project on it? Get her to sign it – to make sure your manager can provide evidence that this face to face meeting actually happened, crucial for justifying the unit cost. Monitor the achieved outcome and write thousand-word reports every three months.

Read More