Some actions are just a stroke of genius. In a brilliant action, at 2:30 yesterday, Saturday 27th May, activists from the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied the former Holloway Prison building in protest at cuts to women’s services and proposals for the site to be used for luxury flats.
Around 100 women entered the visitors’ centre of the North London prison. They have called for a women’s centre and affordable housing to be built on the 10-acre site, which is currently earmarked for a potential £2 billion housing development. The activists, who entered the red-brick building through an open window, set off flares of coloured smoke on the roof and unfurled a white banner saying: “This is public land, our land.”
Police surrounded the prison Saturday night and blocked people from getting food into the occupiers… Sister Uncut are organising a week long program of events in the occupied part of the old jail. Get down and support them!
The occupiers have erected a large blue and green sign reading: “This is a huge piece of public land and there are lots of powerful local campaigns and discussions in place to demand the land is used to benefit the community.”
The group is critical of prison overcrowding and the nine multi-million pound “super-prisons” the conservative government plans to build. Its members intend to occupy the visitor’s centre for a week, in advance of the general election.
Aisha Streetson, a Sisters Uncut activist said: “We are reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women – the government should provide a better answer.” “46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors.” A local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing said: “If the government have money for mega prisons, they have money for domestic violence support services. 46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors – if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t end up in prison.”
Holloway prison, which once housed 600 inmates, was one of the largest women’s prisons in Western Europe until it closed suddenly last year. The inmates were moved to Bronzefield and Downsview prisons in Surrey and the site has remained empty. There has been a strong local campaign opposing the planned luxury housing development, and calling for social housing instead.
More on the occupation here
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Today, the second day of the occupation, also marks a campaigning anniversary connected to Holloway Prison.
On 28th May 2004, Pauline Campbell, a former civil servant and college lecturer, was arrested outside the jail while protesting the inhuman treatment of women inmates.
She had been a vociferous critic of the prison system since the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Styal prison in 2003. Sarah, an only child, was the third of six women to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period.
Pauline had pledged to picket every women’s prison in the UK immediately after the death of a prisoner there. She was repeatedly arrested trying to block prison gates to call attention to the terrible record of suicide and sudden deaths among female inmates. She was arrested for this on 15 occasions though the authorities nearly always backed down from charging her.
The arrest outside Holloway was her third in this sequence; she was lifted after attempting to prevent a prison van from bringing inmates to the north London jail.
The protest was her sixth in as many weeks, and followed the death of 28-year-old Heather Wait, who was the second woman to die in Holloway in the course of a few weeks.
Pauline’s aim in trying to stop vans entering jails where a woman had died was to “demonstrate that they were unsafe places which constantly failed to uphold the duty of care that the Prison Service has to all prisoners.”
She was painfully aware of the effect of a premature death on the children and parents left behind.
“One of the worst imaginable things that can happen to a child is for its mother to die. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers. When a woman prisoner dies, not only does it remind me of the loss of my daughter, but, if she was a mother, there is the added pain of knowing that the motherless children will suffer. I speak from experience: my mother died when I was three.”
Pauline’s daughter Sarah was a troubled teenager who had problems with addiction and a history of self-harm.
Despite her mental health problems, a catalogue of errors meant Sarah was put in a segregation unit at the prison. She took an overdose of prescription drugs in a bid to get transferred to the hospital wing.
Her cry for help was ignored – 40 minutes elapsed before an ambulance was called. Paramedics were further delayed at the prison gates.
By the time they reached her it was too late. She died, aged 18, after less than 24 hours in Styal prison. The police notified Pauline of this tragedy by phone. Sarah was the youngest of six women to die in Styal that year.
This statistic, along with the many other hidden facts about the scandalous treatment of vulnerable incarcerated women, triggered a breathtaking campaign that Pauline would lead to the end.
Along with her regular pickets, Pauline was “a prolific letter writer, hardly a week would go by without her eloquent words launching a stinging attack on the prison service in the local and national papers.
As a public speaker she was both articulate and informative, having educated herself about every aspect of the criminal justice system and its failings.
In 2005 she won the Emma Humphries memorial prize for “highlighting the distressing realities of women’s lives and deaths in prison”.
She was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and an active member of the campaigning organisation Inquest.”
Tragically, Pauline Campbell was found dead on 15 May 2008, not far from the grave of her daughter Sarah.
She would have been glad to see Holloway closed down last year, but even happier to see the Sisters Uncut occupation this weekend: a wonderful continuation, if in a different form, of Pauline’s inspiring spirit…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.