Object Focus: Red Book

The Echoes of Holloway Prison project collected stories and objects from Holloway Prison.

As part of our Object Focus series, Katherine Roberts, a project volunteer, tells us about her personal reaction to the Holloway Red Book.

‘Motherhood’ has come to the fore over and over again as a key theme in the stories from Holloway Prison and, from my perspective, has been a source of frequent surprises.

Like many others, I came to this project with only a vague general knowledge of women’s experience in prison, most of which I had gathered from TV shows such as Orange is the New Black. I knew, in the abstract, that women in prison had children but my understanding was limited to the image of a woman seated across from her children during a family visit. In my mind’s eye, those children never fell under the age of five and mothers with infants or toddlers were entirely absent.  

The project was kindly lent a copy of the Holloway Prison Personal Child Health Record (or Red Book). This document is offered to all new mothers around the UK and a special version was produced for mothers expecting inside Holloway Prison. Reading this document introduced me to a more nuanced understanding of the experiences of mothers in prison.

The Holloway Red Book is filled with familiar moments uncomfortably situated in the foreign experience of incarceration. I kept coming across questions and concerns that I could imagine any expectant mother having, where the answers were shocking to me because they were being given, not to just any expectant mother, but to an expectant mother in prison. For example, one of the questions featured in the book was ‘Can family or a friend come with me to the ultrasound scan?’ which is a question I can imagine anyone asking their doctor; however, the answer provided in the Holloway Red Book was that a family member or a friend could not come to the ultrasound because the women would not be told in advance when they would be taken for a screening. Can you imagine seeing the outline of your baby or hearing its heartbeat for the first time and having the only people to share that moment with be the technician and the prison officer assigned to you that day? Can you imagine learning that something was wrong and having no family to support you?

Prior to working on this project, I had never thought about babies being in prison but, as the Red Book makes very clear, they were there. Babies could remain in Holloway with their mothers for up to 9 months. If the mother’s sentence continued on beyond that point, she could request a transfer to a prison where babies could stay with their mom for 18 months. As I had never considered babies to be part of the prison population, I had never considered what their needs might be within that particular environment. In one of the workshops that took place over the course of this project, one of the participants spoke about her work with the women in the Mother and Baby unit at Holloway, through Birth Companions. One of the programs that she helped to organize involved women from a local church coming into Holloway and taking the babies out for the day to get them used to being in stores, on buses or the underground, and surrounded by large groups of people. The point of this project was to keep the babies from becoming institutionalized, from having their only experience or understanding of the world be that of Holloway Prison.

The Holloway Red Book drew my attention to restrictions and limitations that were placed on mothers in prison. One of the questions in the book asked whether the mothers could have pictures taken of their babies. This was something that I’d never thought about. It seems obvious looking at it now – after all, what could they use to take a picture? They weren’t permitted a cell phone – but in the time of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, where my social media feeds are often filled with pictures and videos of my friends’ children, it’s strange to think of not being able to take a picture of your own baby. What does it mean for that child to not have a record of their childhood? What does it mean for their mother?

On a slightly personal (and very privileged) note, my parents didn’t have a camcorder when I was growing up; it just wasn’t something they were interested in and, as such, I have no home videos of myself or my siblings when we were kids. If the lack of video can make me feel some sort of a loss, how must it feel when all you have is a picture taken once a month? Assuming that you were only able to stay with your mom for your first nine months, that is only nine pictures for pretty much the first year of your life. What kind of a gap does that create?

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