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.