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.