Nelson Mandela said "No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." In the UK we have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe and shocking reoffending rates provide overwhelming evidence that prison does not work.
About 4,000 English and Welsh women sleep in prison on the average night. 85% of women sentenced to prison are there on short sentences for non-violent crimes, mainly theft (often shop-lifting). Women are still sent to prison for not paying council tax or TV licence fees. Women reaching prison are the poorest and most disadvantaged members of our society: a third grew up in the care system and most have experienced childhood abuse, domestic violence or some form of sexual violence. Mental ill health and addiction are common root causes of women's offending. Women in prison are likely to be victims of more serious crimes than they are accused of. They are also much more likely than men to be sole carers of children. When a child's mother goes to prison nine out of 10 children will have to leave their home to live with relatives or go into the care system. Half of women leaving prison do so without a home to go to, with examples of some given tents to sleep in as they go through the prison gate. So, in terms of how we treat our most vulnerable citizens, we are being judged as a nation. And found wanting.
Yet in November 2015, there was hope that this dire situation might be about to change - starting with plans to end the overuse of prison sentences for women. The Government unexpectedly announced the closure of HMP Holloway in London - at the time the largest women's prison in Europe. There was cautious optimism that this would begin a sustained effort to drive down the number of women imprisoned in favour of more effective community alternatives (including women's centres) which enable women to tackle the root causes of offending whilst caring for families and keeping a job and a roof over their heads. Sadly, two years on, the number of women in prison is higher than at the time of the Holloway closure announcement.
By July 2016, HMP Holloway had closed with inevitable disruptive impact on women imprisoned and on other prisons (including the reopened HMP Downview). In 2016, tragically, 22 women died in prison - the highest number on record with 12 of these women taking their own lives. In a forthcoming report on women's views about the impact of Holloway's closure and the future of the site, London women tell us that being held much further from home has had a disastrous impact on the ability of their children and families to visit.
Like many prisons, Holloway has had a dark history, including shocking conditions and inadequate help for those with mental illness. However, over the years it had become a national hub for services to help women tackle the complex root causes of offending including mental ill health and experience of trauma. Sadly, the closure of the prison was implemented with such speed and lack of wider planning that no provision was made to sustain those services or limit the damage on small specialist women's charities. The result is closed services and the loss of expert staff alongside deepening financial strain on many charities. The price has been high for women prisoners dispersed to prisons in Surrey, Kent, Peterborough and beyond - and for their children and families.
Two years on there is now a "once in a generation" opportunity to make Holloway's closure a force for good. In New York, a few years ago, a women's prison was closed and replaced with a "women's building" to house women's organisations and services and offer a "one-stop" shop to help women rebuild lives. In the UK, the Ministry of Justice owns the Holloway land and has advertised it for sale as an opportunity for development. The most likely use is luxury flats. An active coalition, called Reclaim Holloway, that includes local people, housing campaigners and feminist activists has put forward a positive vision in the Community Plan for Holloway. This calls for genuinely affordable homes, community facilities and, importantly, a women's building - creating the potential for Holloway to become a global beacon for social justice. A combination of the three options has now been embedded in Islington Council's planning guidance for the Holloway prison land.
The council has a housing waiting list of 18,000 and along with the local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, it supports the use of the land for public benefit. At least 400 council homes could be built on the 10 acres of publicly owned land. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has a commitment to build social housing and a £250 million budget for purchasing land. A petition calling on the Mayor to buy the land is gaining widespread support.
The closure of Holloway prison could yet become a catalyst for lasting change, if, in its place, we offered homes and constructive community support to address the core issues that repeatedly trigger offending. This would be a real legacy for social justice and could help substantially reduce the female prison population in the process.
As we approach the centenary year that marks the victory of the suffragettes in securing women's right to vote - many of whom spent time imprisoned in Holloway for their cause - this would establish a milestone in Holloway's history of which any government could be proud.