London’s oldest housing association turns female prison into home.

By John Chisengalumbwe

One of London’s oldest women’s prisons is set to disappear as the demand for social housing and privately rented homes in the capital continues to rise. John Chinode Chisengalumbwe brings this special report on the closure of Holloway Prison in Islington.

Only thirty minutes away from central London, is one of the main retail streets in North London. This is Holloway Road, a 3km road that carries the A1 through North London.

Right at the heart of Holloway Road is the H.M.P The Old Holloway Prison for Women.

Today, the red-brick prison still stands behind the tall security wall fence, with some faces on the perimeter finished in wire fencing donning signs that read “Security Dogs on Patrol” and “Caution: Guard Dogs”.

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Photo Credit 1: John Chisengalumbwe

Previously, Holloway Prison had the capacity to house approximately 590 women, the majority of whom served short sentences. This was reflected in the fact that 55% of sentenced females served less than three months.

Will the closure of the women’s prison have a significant impact on women affected by the criminal justice system?

The building is just brick and mortar from the outside but one doesn’t feel like sticking around once you walk through the prison gates. Walking through the doors of the maximum-security prison, you are hit by a smell of Grandad’s house in the 1970s.

“Every door is a security door, and the staff never smile back when you smile at them”, says James Molby, a resident living at Fairview Estate which is right next to the Old Holloway Prison.

Molby had plenty to say about the demolition of the prison.

“The place is like a horror film. It makes me depressed every time I walk past the prison. Two old friends served jail time there and when we went to visit them with other friends, the feeling was very sad and negative,” he said.

“There were too many security doors [and] you just sense a bad spirit when you [are] inside the prison. My neighbors and I feel happy that flats we will be built [here in place of the Prison].

“Just imagine, I have been living next to a prison for 17 years!”, exclaimed James.

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Photo Credit 2: John Chisengalumbwe

Sadiq Khan announced a deal to secure 600 socially rented affordable homes on the former Holloway Prison site after its sale from the Ministry of Justice to Peabody Housing Association, in partnership with a private developer, according to the London Mayor’s office.

Affordable social housing has been a challenge for the Islington borough. That can be seen every morning when you walk into the Council’s temporary accommodation offices on Upper Street.

When you become a social worker, you tend to understand the real social hardships faced by less privileged people.

“To me, the local council has got it wrong and twisted. [What] this part of London needs is social affordable homes. The houses that will be built at the old prison will be for middle-class people, despite the council saying some homes will be affordable”, says social worker Janet Davies from London.

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“I have worked in the borough for 14 years and I can tell you that when it comes to social housing, this borough is in crisis.

“Why did they decide to close the prison in the first place? Does it mean women are now committing less crime or does it now mean we don’t need women’s prisons? All it is is money first over the disadvantaged” Added Janet Davies.

Some of London’s poorest boroughs, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, and Hackney, are all facing land shortages and are rubbing up against council planning departments, which are eager for growth but unable to achieve because of limited funding.

Change is inevitable in the world we live in, however, should all historic buildings be subject to demolition over profits? How much will it cost to build another women’s prison should the need arise in the future?

The Old Holloway Prison was opened in 1852 as a mixed-race prison but due to a rise in demand for female prisoners, in particular after the closure of Newgate prison, it became a female-only prison in 1903.

The prison went through some redevelopment in 1971 and 1985 on the same site and it has housed the likes of Myra Hindley and Rose West.

According to a BBC report, £81.5m worth of homes is to be built after Peabody Housing bought the 10-acres of the former female prison, which was once the biggest female prison in Europe.

In his book, The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela said: “A country is judged by how well it looks after its prisoners.”

“There is nothing wrong with closing down a prison, but there is something wrong if you don’t consult and engage your community in decisions like this,” said Michael Hamilton, a campaigner and member of the Tenants and Residents Associations of Islington.

“We, in the community need jobs, not homes. We would have loved to see the place turn into a business or shopping mall that employs people. I can bet you those homes will not come cheap, especially for residents”, he said, dressed in a blue jumper, black jeans, and what looked like new trainers, whilst and puffing a cigarette on a very sunny day.

When the Government announced that Holloway Prison will be closed, it was welcomed by a certain section of people, politicians, and organizations but the Prisoners’ Governors’ Association said it had “major concerns”.

The women that were serving time at Holloway Prison during its closure in 2015 have now been relocated to Down View prison in Surrey.

The judge and jury are the public that will come up with the final verdict on whether closing the prison was the right thing to do.