Closure of Holloway Prison

Porsha Nunes-Brown, Network Development Officer, attended the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre, which celebrates women and girls, and assesses the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential. She attended a panel discussion on the closure of HMP Holloway and the broader issue of women in the criminal justice system in the UK.

HMP Holloway, the biggest women’s prison in Western Europe, is set to close this summer. This serves as a fitting time to discuss what a prison system that works for women should look like.

The panel speakers included:

  • Juliet Lyon CBE – Director of the Prison Reform Trust
  • Maureen Mansfield – Mental Health Inclusion Project Coordinator, Women in Prison
  • Vicky Pryce – Economist, past civil servant and having served time in Holloway and an open prison

Juliet Lyon CBE, passionately articulated, that as a nation we’re imprisoning too many women, many whom are mothers, for minor non-violent offences. Annually over 18,000 children are separated from their mothers due to imprisonment. A Prison Reform Trust study found that 42 women held in HMP Holloway had no idea who was looking after their children and that 19 children under the age of 16 were looking after themselves. The effects of parental imprisonment are far-reaching. CSAN network member PACT launched the campaign ‘Hear my Voice’, aimed at raising awareness and improving practice for children affected by familial imprisonment.

Women offenders have experienced great distress and trauma, with 46% of women in prison having attempted suicide at some point of their life, which is more than double the figure for men. Almost half of women in prison have suffered domestic violence. It’s evident that the overwhelming majority of women in the criminal justice system are vulnerable and require holistic and tailored support. The question was raised, why do we lock up our most vulnerable women in the bleakest places?

The panel was in unanimous agreement concerning the limited effectiveness of prison, pertaining to the rehabilitation of women offenders. Women in prison would be better served with alternatives to custody.

The issue of staff cuts within prisons is a critical issue, which is tied into the service and care provided to women within the criminal justice system. The prevalence of self-harm, assaults on staff and self-inflicted deaths has been attributed to the significant cuts to prison staff.

Maureen Mansfield from Women in Prisons, articulated despite the negative connotations associated with Holloway, it’s a place of security for many women.

Vicky Pryce, economist and former civil servant spoke about her experience in Holloway and how it shaped her view on the criminal justice system. She cited the shocking statistic, that women only account for 5% of the prison population, but a third of all self-harm incidents. She optimistically stated that the closure of Holloway could lead to better solutions for women which would result in less women being imprisoned.

The ever present tensions between punishment and rehabilitation were also discussed, in regards to the severe abuse and distress suffered by imprisoned women. Which leads to the question, can the psychological work that needs to be done to effectively help women offenders, be delivered within the criminal justice setting?

The closure of Holloway will move women further away from their families with women being moved being moved to HMP Downview in Surrey. This will result in higher travel costs and longer journey times for the families that do intend to visit. We need to capture the momentum from the closure of Holloway and seize the opportunity to rethink how women engage with the criminal justice system in the UK.


The views expressed in this blog are not CSAN policy.