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Who Owns the Legacy of a Notorious Women's Prison?

Pamela Stewart had been working as a psychotherapist at H.M.P. Holloway, a prison in London, for twenty years, in the fall of 2015, when she was suddenly called to the chapel for a mass announcement. As the officers and staff members filed into the large concrete space, she wondered if there had been a bombing, or if the Queen had died. Instead, she and her colleagues learned that Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, was shutting down. The institution would close, the land would be put up for sale, and the more than five hundred inmates would be moved to other prisons, outside of London. Immediately, the officers around Stewart began to cry. “A massive personal, social, historical moment had come,” Stewart told me. “Everything that we’d learned, and built up, and were working toward, was about to be bulldozed.”

Soon afterward, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, announced the closure in Parliament. “Old Victorian prisons in our cities that are not suitable for rehabilitating prisoners will be sold,” he said. The proceeds would go toward building nine modern prisons. The announcement launched a flurry of articles in the British press. The BBC reported that the Prison Governors Association had “major concerns” about moving women out of Holloway. There was tittering speculation about the future of the site. “the lag of luxury,” one Daily Mail headline read. “infamous holloway prison which housed—and executed—some of britain’s most notorious female killers is to be sold off.

Holloway opened its doors in 1852, on a ten-acre plot in an underdeveloped part of North London. The building resembled a medieval castle, with an imposing entrance arch flanked by stone griffins, and a foundation stone that read “May God preserve the City of London and make this place a terror to evil doers.” Originally intended for both sexes—Oscar Wilde stayed for a wretched month in 1895—the prison became women-only in the early nineteen-hundreds. In the years that followed, “royalty and socialites, spies and prostitutes, sporting stars and nightclub queens, Nazis and enemy aliens, terrorists and freedom fighters” all passed through Holloway’s halls, as Caitlin Davies writes in “Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison.” “Women were sentenced for treason and murder, for begging, performing abortions and stealing clothing coupons, for masquerading as men, running brothels and attempting suicide.”

In Holloway’s registry, it is possible to trace a history of social movements. In the nineteen-tens, the hottest story was the imprisonment and hunger-striking of militant suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst. For these women, Davies points out, a visit to Holloway was a badge of honor: they made Holloway-themed brooches and Christmas cards. During the First World War, the prison held conscientious objectors. During the Second World War, Diana Mitford, who had married the head of the British Union of Fascists, was imprisoned on the grounds. Throughout the nineteen-eighties, nuclear-disarmament activists from Greenham Common were taken to Holloway repeatedly for disturbing the peace. (Their supporters climbed onto the prison’s roof in protest.) Five women were executed on the grounds, and many more died of other causes. Davies told me, “Every spot there tells a story in terms of the history of women, and crime and punishment.”

Despite the language of the announcement, by the time Holloway closed, it was no longer a Victorian prison. The castle had been torn down and rebuilt, in the seventies and eighties, along softer lines, to resemble a hospital. Its policies were increasingly progressive, for a prison. Some of the women lived in small groups around shared kitchenettes, worked in the garden, and took classes at the pottery studio. The facility had a gym and a swimming pool, a mother-and-baby unit, a team of therapists, a hairdresser, and a dentist. There were still problems: the building’s layout made it difficult to see around corners, and drug use and self-harm among prisoners were not uncommon. But Holloway had received good marks on its latest inspection, especially in mental-health services. The prison’s location, however, in central Islington, one of the city’s most popular boroughs, made the real estate valuable. The closure was all the more bewildering because H.M.P. Pentonville, a truly Victorian men’s prison nearby, which had recently been cited for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, would remain open. But, as some critics noted, Pentonville was bigger, and its inmates more often violent; it seemed easier to move the women.

Read entire article at The New Yorker