“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!