I had made my own announcement a week earlier, that after nearly eight years inside I had reached my sentence end date, and I was due for release in three months’ time.
I was the Deputy Head of Healthcare (Head of Mental Health), a Psychiatric Nurse by trade. I arrived in Holloway myself in 2008, on loan to the Prison service from the NHS, as at the time Prisons employed their own healthcare staff, but it was well recognised at this time that standards were not as they should have been and contracts were soon after transferred to the Department of Health and commissioned separately to the prison service. But when I arrived there was me and a couple of other Managers.
It was amazing my experience at Holloway. It was the best job ever, and the worst. The environment was harsh and challenging, the staff were regimented, boundaried and mostly bloody lovely! The women were polite mostly well-behaved. I remember feeling more welcome at Holloway than I ever had in the NHS. It was as though they were starving, and every resource that came their way they welcomed and engaged with so that you wanted to stay, to help, to improve services, and mostly support the staff and therefore the women to change lives.
You - We - People can walk into NHS services and no-one smiles, no-one offers to help, no-one says “hi, welcome!” - and this is if you’re a member of staff, never mind being a patient.
For eight years I walked around the site at Holloway and almost every staff member, from every service provider smiled at one another and said “good morning”. From the women you passed - “Morning Miss”. It’s not like everyone was friends, this was not a family. The divisions between the staff groups were always hard to cross, possible, but not easy. But everyone was in it together somehow, you knew that if something kicked off, someone would have your back (support you).
So I had resigned, my time was served, I could no longer bear to be in prison. I’d discussed it with my Boss, met with her, considered how to tell the staff and so on. We decided to leave it a week, because there was rather a lot going on at the time: the contract we were providing having been commissioned to do so five years earlier was due to end, and we had spent the last ten months or so planning and writing and re-tendering for the service, to continue running it. The announcement of who had been awarded this new contract had been delayed, and we were hoping that it would come, and then I would announce I was leaving. The decision still hadn’t arrived the following week, and my announcement couldn’t be held off any longer. So Wednesday morning, my Boss sent an email to the whole healthcare team about my leaving.
Good - the news was out, I could actually talk to people about going. I still had three months’ notice to give, but the information was out there.
I had a couple of meetings that morning, I was with one of the IMB members, and she asked me whether I was going to the full staff meeting that had been arranged that lunchtime. I had decided not to go. I was in a process of disengagement myself, having been planning my resignation for some time. Shortly after the time of the meeting there was a knock on my office door: one of my colleagues - “did you go to the meeting? Holloway’s closing!” “What?” “Seriously” “what do we do? We should call someone”. “Who?” “NHS England? The Trust?” It dawned on me that my Boss was not in the establishment, that I was the most senior healthcare member on site, I needed to do something, but what? Call the boss, call someone at the Trust. Do they already know? Do NHS England know?! What about the commissioning cycle? The tender?
I call my boss, but she doesn’t answer. I call the Service Director at the Trust, but he doesn’t answer. I call the Clinical Director, but she doesn’t answer. In the meantime I’m googling the news from my office, George Osborne made the announcement in the House of Commons at exactly the time of the full staff meeting here at Holloway. Bastard. We weren’t expecting this. Only two weeks before there had been an open discussion in parliament and the press about the closure of the Victorian prisons. Close ‘em I say - Holloway is not Victorian, all right it’s not fit for purpose either, but it’s not in the state that Pentonville, Wormwood Scrubs or Wandsworth are in. We don’t have smashed windows, rats, homicides and our drug problem’s nothing compared to any of the male establishments. Bastards. This is wrong. We are a London women’s prison for London’s women. Where are they going to go? For some, this is home.
Finally an administrator answers the phone. I explain that this is an emergency, and that I need to speak to any of the Senior Management Team, who are all in the Senior Management Team meeting. My boss calls me back. I tell her the news. We have a short conversation, suddenly there doesn’t seem to be very much to say.
I wonder what to do next. I wander around the prison, to all of the healthcare teams, talking to people, wondering what will become of us. Some of the women stop to talk to me on one of the residential units. They seem more worried about the staff than themselves at this point. The next day I’m told that as dusk fell, someone started singing “we shall not be moved” and this was caught and sung throughout the prison. I can’t think of anything more eerie.
I’m leaving. I want to go, but I’m really sad about it. It’s been the hardest decision I’ve ever made. But I didn’t want everyone to leave. I wanted it to still be here. All that work, all of that effort over all these years – for what? Our recent HMIP / CQC Inspection was the best we’ve ever had, the report wasn’t published at the point of this announcement, but it was the best inspection of Holloway’s history. We were all doing a pretty good job. I for one was hugely proud of the work we were doing. The mental health service that I had managed all this time was one that had grown beyond recognition, with very little investment, but with recruitment of excellent, skilled staff and development and organisation of resources.
I believe in Prison. I believe that there are people that need to be contained in order to protect others. I don’t believe that prison “works”. Rehabilitation? What does that even mean? How can you take people out of society and then expect them to know what to do with it when you put them back in? There is no alternative though. There are no workhouses, there are no asylums. The budgets for mental health services have been slashed in the community, there are now ‘no’ beds. Welfare has been cut, there’s no housing. Rough sleeping has increased over the last few years, you only need to walk around London to see that – uncomfortable though it may be to the naked eye.
Are all the women in Holloway people that need to be contained in order to protect others? Mostly no. Some yes. Mostly, though, in my personal opinion, these women have had shit lives. They arrive in this world with little or nothing. They survive life for as long as they can, in the only ways they know how. They are addicts, mentally ill, abused, homeless, poor, or labelled disordered in some way. More importantly they are usually victims of crime, and/or victims of trauma.
These women are not thriving, they are surviving. So it’s easy to think from the inside about what a great job we’re all doing and what opportunities we’re giving these women to turn their lives around. It’s not reality though, when they’re released back to the “boyfriend” (pimp), “home” (crack-house).
So I think this announcement is a bad one. And I have emotional attachments to the work, the people, and the women. But where is the thinking? What happens next? Who made this decision? How was it made without any discussion with people doing the actual job?
NHS England were not told. A small fortune was wasted on the tender process for a healthcare contract that no longer exists. Who thought that through?
Women In Prison and other campaign groups have argued for years that Holloway should close, but that an alternative needs to be in place before this can happen.
Has anyone in government read the Corston Report?
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