About the Exhibition

WOMEN IN PRISON

Holloway Prison was the largest women’s prison in the Western Europe until its closure in 2016. Women have a very different prison experience to men as they lose contact with their children and community. They often serve short sentences, mainly for non-violent crimes.

England and Wales have one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe, around 9000 per year. While thousands of women are sent to prison each year, they represent just 5% of the national prison population. At the time of its closure the prison had space for 591 women and saw at least 800 women come through its doors each year. The annual cost of keeping a woman at Holloway Prison was £39,000 in 2014.

When Holloway Prison became a women’s prison in 1902 the main crimes were drunkenness, vagrancy or prostitution. By the closure of Holloway in 2016, more than 80% of its prisoners had been sentenced for non-violent crime and about half had been convicted of theft – mostly shoplifting.

Today, women in the Criminal Justice System are often the most vulnerable or marginalised in our society. BAME women are more than twice as likely as white women to be arrested, 53% have experienced abuse during childhood and 49% of women in prison are identified as suffering from both anxiety and depression. Drugs and alcohol addiction can also be a major factor in women’s imprisonment. At the time of the closure, 70% of women entering prison need clinical detoxification and more than 30% said it was easy to get drugs in prison.

Women’s sentences tend to be very short – nearly two thirds serve a sentence of less than 6 months. Short custodial sentences have the worst reoffending rates, as women lose their homes, jobs and contact with families while in prison and many end up homeless on release.

In the very early days of Holloway Prison, men carried out hard labour while women prisoners were given domestic work such as laundry and needlework. Prison was meant to return women to their perceived ‘true nature’ of gentle calm as opposed to the rebellious and violent nature of the male prisoner.

Even in the present day the idea of a violent woman is often presented as shocking. Male and female violence or criminal behaviour is often thought of very differently. The five women hanged at the prison from 1903 were often cruelly stereotyped in the media. In 1955 Ruth Ellis was executed at Holloway. The last woman ever to be executed in the UK. All of the women were buried in unmarked graves within the grounds but were exhumed and reburied during the 1970s redevelopment.

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ASSOCIATED OBJECTS

Welcome Mat

c. 1970s

This is the welcome mat from the prisoners' entrance to Holloway Prison. It is decorated with a giant yellow griffin. When the prison closed, it was rescued by a prison officer and kept as a memento. Women arrived at Holloway prison from the courts in a security van which passed through a double airlock set of doors. The women would then walk across this mat to enter the prison itself. This was the point where a woman would become a prisoner of Holloway and leave their freedom behind. The original House of Correction, Holloway was built in the 1850s by the Corporation of London whose symbol is a griffin. Two huge griffins used to sit on pillars either side of the gateway to the old prison, one holding keys in its claw. Since then the symbol of the griffin has become connected to the prison and was even included in tiles on the bottom of the swimming pool of the new prison building built from 1970 to 1985.

Clay Tablet of Women

2010s

This clay tablet was made in the Holloway Prison pottery class. It shows four women from diverse backgrounds, each with their own personal style. One woman wears a hijab, another wears bright clothes, with her hair pulled up in a bun. It feels like a depiction of close friends, probably all prisoners. It was never claimed and was collected by Islington Museum from the prison after the closure.
In the prison friendships were very important as women gave each other support to survive their time there. Holloway was a diverse prison with people from many different places and circumstances, including foreign nationals and many women from London. In 2015 prisoners from black and minority backgrounds accounted for 39% of the population, compared to 18% of the women’s prison population and only 11.9% of the general population of England and Wales. Most of the prison officers came from London and were also more diverse than officers nationally. This meant women in Holloway felt they had someone on the staff they could relate to.

From Hangings to Hindley... a History of Holloway

27 November 2015

This article explores the 163 years of history of Holloway Prison following the announcement that it was to be sold and, according to the journalist, converted into luxury flats. Fairbairn writes with relish of its 'squalid, rat-infested cells and its immoral inmates'. Her article paints an image of the prison as a hub of the most inhumane murderers, listing the crimes of Holloway’s most infamous prisoners, including Ruth Ellis, Rose West and Tracey Connelly. The photograph, originally published in The Sun in 2008, shows women prisoners at a fancy-dress Halloween party, with the caption “Monster’s Ball”. Right at the end of the article, Fairburn concedes that 'not all the inmates of Holloway prison were killers', but mainly the term 'killer' is substituted for ‘prisoner’ or 'woman'.
This article is just one of many that reflect the media’s appetite for sensationalising Holloway prison and the women held there. It reduces the complex history of the prison to a ‘top ten most vicious murderers’ list. In fact, 80% of the women held in Holloway were there for non-violent crimes. Framing all the prisoners as murderers can be used to justify harsh or squalid conditions and make the idea of ‘fun’ at the prison immoral. Public opinion has often viewed terrible crimes, particularly when committed by women, as so shocking that those involved are barely seen as human and not deserving any rights.

Execution Document for Styllou Pantiofi Christofi

December 1954

This document was part of the execution paperwork of Styllou Pantiofi Christofi. She was found guilty of murdering her daughter-in-law, Hella, in July 1954. She had come to London from rural Cyprus the year before to live with her son and daughter-in-law. She spoke little English and during the trial she had no support from family and friends. On remand at Holloway Prison she was found insane but medically fit to stand trial. She refused to plead insanity in her defence saying, ‘I am a poor woman of no education, but I am not a mad woman’.
Christofi was sentenced to death. An appeal was dismissed by the Court of Criminal Justice and no reprieve was given under the 1884 Criminal Lunatics Act. A campaign by six Labour MPs was unsuccessful in persuading the Home Secretary to grant clemency.
A recent documentary re-examined the case and found that cultural prejudice, language barriers and her poor mental health all had implications for the trial but could not find enough evidence to prove a miscarriage of justice.

Erika's Postcards from Prison

2014 to 2017

Erika served most of her sentence at Holloway Prison until its closure in 2016. While being held on bail, before she was sentenced she started to document her experience by drawing a postcard a day. This film includes some of the 1400 postcards she drew during her three-year sentence. It documents her highs -getting her own cell and working in the gym and lows -seeing her family for the first visit and descending into guilt and depression alone in her cell. She was held at Holloway Prison until its closure and then moved to HMP Send to finish her sentence.
Every person's experience of being a prisoner is different. During her time at Holloway, Erika was able to find work in the gym and study from her cell. She developed her skills as an artist and eventually worked outside the prison for the Koestler Trust on ROTL (release on temporary licence). Other prisoners find it hard to engage with any of the education or rehabilitation services at the prison.

Prevention of Suicide Sign

2000s

This sign states HMP Holloway's commitment to caring for suicidal prisoners. The policy was to identify those who were particularly at risk of self-harm and to maintain a "safe and humane" environment. This sign was hung inside the prison for everyone to see.
In a close-knit community such as Holloway, a death in custody could have a huge impact on everyone. From the friends and cellmates of the woman who died, to all the staff who knew her, to her family and friends back at home. From 1987 until the closure in 2016, 25 women died while in custody at Holloway Prison. Of these, 16 of the deaths were self-inflicted.
Mental health issues and self-harm are a huge problem for women in prison. At Holloway 37% of prisoners who responded to the inspector’s survey for the 2013 Prison Inspection Report said they felt depressed or suicidal when they arrived. Nearly half of women in prison report that they have tried to kill themselves at some point in their lifetime. This is twice the rate of men in prison and more than seven times higher than the general population.

The Criminal Prisons of London by Henry Mayhew

1862

Journalists Henry Mayhew and John Binny visited Holloway Prison in 1862 as part of their investigation into the London prison system. Holloway was at that time the 'House of Correction, Holloway', funded by local taxes from the Corporation of London and holding prisoners for short sentences.
All the prisons surveyed were found to be highly punitive. At Holloway the silence rule was fully enforced– prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other. Cells took up much of the building and there were no central spaces for eating or meeting other prisoners.
Women were held in a separate wing at the prison. They were mainly categorised as ‘felons’ – pickpockets, shoplifters or thieves and many had alcohol addiction issues. Most women were repeat offenders.
Work was part of the punishment. Men trod the hard-labour treadmill, pumping water for the prison. Women prisoners’ work was largely domestic including laundry, cleaning, knitting and making shirts. This reflected the belief of the time that women criminals were an unatural, needing returning to their true gentle nature. Lady Visitors to the prison found jobs for well-behaved prisoners as servants on release.