Holloway Prison: History and Health Exhibition

Rachel Bennett and Janet Weston reflect on their recent exhibition focused upon the people who lived and worked in Holloway and the ongoing debates over the site’s legacy.

Why Holloway?

Opened in 1852, Holloway Prison was the City of London House of Correction. It held both male and female prisoners. The prison’s turreted gateway and imposing structure earned it the moniker of ‘The Castle’. The increasing pressure for prison space prompted the decision to make Holloway a female-only prison in 1903 and it became the largest female prison in England. By the 1960s, there was growing interest in more specialised treatment for women in prison and there were calls to move the prison out of London, into a building that would better serve this purpose. However, the prison’s crucial links to the local community, and concerns that women moved away from London would lose contact with their families, meant that Holloway was rebuilt on the same site instead. At the time this was an unprecedented move. When the last inmate left Holloway in 2016, less than a year after the unexpected announcement that the prison would be closing permanently, it was still one of the best-known prisons in the UK, and the largest women’s prison in Western Europe.

Holloway occupies an important spatial and ideological place in the history of women in prison. Due to its size and profile it was often at the centre of debates about how women should be treated within the criminal justice system. It has also been a site for political protest, and an important space in which the legal, social and health rights of women have been identified, advocated for and challenged. However, Holloway has a conflicted legacy. Across over a century the prison was home to thousands of women from different social backgrounds, but its residents were commonly there for offences related to poverty. For some, Holloway was a refuge; for others their prison experience was characterised by harsh conditions and isolation. Some women died there. See, for example, the more recent case of Sarah ReEd.

With 2018 marking the centenary of partial women’s suffrage and ongoing debate over the fate of the central London Holloway site an exhibition about the history of Holloway prison seemed to be a timely opportunity to explore connections between the prison and the changing positions of women in Britain in the 20th century.

Shaping the Exhibition

We organised a workshop that would bring together people with various areas of expertise, interests and lived experiences of Holloway. We wanted to hear their views on what an exhibition about the history and legacy of the prison should be. Participants shared their views and memoires of Holloway, what they would like to see in the exhibition and how they thought Holloway should be remembered. They also reflected on how Holloway’s legacy, as a prison, a medical space and a place of refuge for women, can be used to inform decisions around the experiences of women in the criminal justice system.

Key themes to emerge from the workshop were the misrepresentations of Holloway, especially at the time of its closure when it was characterised as an old Victorian prison, even though the buildings dated from the 1980s. Those who had worked there spoke of the huge improvements that had been made in recent years, and described the prison as a place where expertise had become concentrated and had enhanced treatment for women in the criminal justice system. Holloway was also remembered as the best women’s prison by some former inmates, who recalled a home and a community where they received care and support. There was much concern about how women in prison now, located far from city centres and transport links, would be able to maintain the important connections with their children and families. Another key theme to emerge from the workshop was the difficulties women have historically faced before their incarceration, and the role of the prison in picking up the pieces where society and other services have failed. A strong view to emerge from our discussions was that there are too many women in prison today, especially women serving very short sentences.

National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance Conference

Following the workshop we had the task of bringing all of these insights and ideas together and shaping them into an exhibition. In December 2017 it went on display at the NCJAA conference, an event that brought together arts practitioners, charitable organisations, academics and people with lived experience of the prison system. The conference featured presentations, performances and testimonies of how the arts, whether photography, theatre, poetry or music, can be used in the rehabilitative process. We participated in the afternoon session focused on women in the criminal justice system and introduced both the research and engagement activities being undertaken on the ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health’ project and the exhibition. Throughout the day people came to see the exhibition, which was described in feedback forms as ‘really engaging’ and a ‘powerful history of Holloway’. We were also delighted to read that some visitors had thought for the first time about the role of prisons in providing healthcare and had taken away plenty of new ideas about Holloway’s past and future.

The Exhibition goes on Tour

Thanks to the support of Islington Heritage and Archives, the exhibition toured the borough’s 9 libraries from February to October 2018. It began at the Cat and Mouse Library, moments away from the Holloway prison site.

  • February: Cat and Mouse Library, 277 Camden Road, N7 0JN
  • March: Central Library, 2 Fieldway Crescent, N5 1PF
  • April: Archway Library, Hamlyn House, N19 5PH
  • May: N4 Library, 26 Blackstock Road, N4 2DW
  • June: West Library, Bridgeman Road, N1 1BD
  • July: South Library, 115-117 Essex Rd, N1 2SL
  • August: North Library, Manor Gardens, N7 6JX
  • September: Finsbury Library, 245 St. John Street, EC1V 4NB
  • October: Mildmay Library, 21-23 Mildmay Park, N1 4NA

For maps and opening hours, visiting the Islington libraries website please click here

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Exhibition display NCJAA conference December 2017