Former inmates speak up against ‘demonisation’ of women in prison

It once housed the most notorious women prisoners, including Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, but many thousands who passed through Holloway Prison’s gates were in fact failed by society, a new exhibition will show.

Thirty former inmates have shared their rehabilitation, and how they went on to become poets, CEOs, counsellors and campaigners, giving hope that change is possible. The women revisited the prison before it was demolished to recount their experiences for the “immersive” exhibition of portraits, films and letters.

Holloway was once the largest women’s prison in Europe until it closed in 2016. Operating for 164 years, Suffragettes and Greenham Common protesters were held within its walls.

Yet it was ordinary women who fell foul of the law that were often “demonised” and not given the help they needed to deal with their underlying issues – such as mental health, abuse, trauma, addiction and poverty – to break the cycle of offending.

Exhibition organisers point out more than half of women prisoners had suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a quarter had been in care, and more than three quarters suffered with mental health problems.

And some 17,000 children a year are born inside or incarcerated alongside their mothers, because of their dependant age.

Project producer Polly Creed said: “Women in prison are often seen as mad or bad. You can see that in the history of Holloway.

“It was rebuilt in the 70s along the lines of a mental health hospital, with pastel painted walls and long twisting corridors.

“In a way we demonise women, rather than recognising the specific circumstances that have led to a woman offending and offering support.

“It costs well over £40,000 a year to imprison someone.

“Imagine if we spend that on these people before they reach prison, the impact that can have.”

Aliyah Ali, one of the project’s creative directors, said: “We want to highlight the themes behind what leads women to prison and most importantly the challenges they face with the criminal justice system, which is very different than for men.

“But also to create a platform for women with lived experiences to feel empowered, and also to educate others based on their experiences.”

Aliyah was groomed and exploited before being taken into care and ended up in Holloway. She said: “Prison was the first time I ever felt safe. What does that say about society?”

She said women are being “criminalised” for how they deal with their trauma or “criminalised for their vulnerabilities”.

Also featuring in the exhibition is Claire, 52, who has gone on to become a counsellor and charity worker since leaving Holloway. She runs courses for women who are in prison.

After a troubled childhood, she said it was only in her late 20s that a friend insisted she was “good”, and that moved her away from her past life. And it was only in her 40s she sought therapy. She said: “There was a lot of shame – I could not have told anybody 20 years ago that I had been in prison.

“I always carried that with me and it was only when I had therapy I realised it was not my fault, it was not my parents’ fault.

“I had no rehabilitation at all. It’s taken me all this time to recover. I wasted a lot of my life and a lot of potential.”

She now volunteers helping women prisoners through the Imago Dei Prison Ministry.

She said: “My passion is to help women who are coming out of prison. They are left at the gates with a £76 leaving grant, and 60 per cent of these women are homeless. So they go back on to the streets and do what they have always done to survive and end up back in prison.

“It was painful being in prison, to see women who had been through the care system, who did not have families, who were in and out in two or three weeks.”

About the exhibition, she adds: “We are 30 women. But there are hundreds of thousands of women who were in Holloway, that have been through the prison system and have not made it.

“The 30 women are standing up and saying, ‘What about the ones we left behind? What about the ones that did not manage to survive, that did not get through?’”

  • Layers: Looking Inside HMP Holloway, Copeland Gallery, Peckham, London, March 8-12
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