Holloway prison closure possible factor in death of relocated inmate

Holloway Prison
Holloway Prison was the largest women's prison in Europe before its closure in 2016. Credit: David Anstiss (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The closure of Holloway Prison caused significant stress to prisoners, and was a possible factor in the subsequent death of a relocated inmate, a report on its impact has concluded.

A study published jointly by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and campaign group Women in Prison said the decision to close the prison left many women further away from their homes and less able to receive visits from family, children, and support workers.

Sarah Burke, 48, committed suicide just four months after the closure of Holloway, despite prison officers being aware that she had been bullied and suffered mental health issues. Burke had been transferred to HMP Peterborough in Cambridgeshire and then HMP Drake Hall in Staffordshire, where she was found hanging in her cell just eight days after her arrival.

An inquest into her death heard that the outflow of prisoners from Holloway had had a “significant impact” on the ability of staff in other prisons to safeguard inmates’ welfare.

“We were getting a lot more challenging prisoners with complex issues, with 78% having had some form of mental health issues,” said Lee Stedman, head of security at Drake Hall.

“There were higher levels of physical violence. The process for reporting issues became very time-consuming and very difficult.” Stedman also acknowledged that the anti-bullying policy at the prison at the time of Burke’s death was “not fit for purpose”.

Prison Woman
Holloway’s closure has put other prisons under pressure, and potentially placed inmates at risk

Holloway Prison was the largest women’s prison in Europe and the only one in London until it was closed by the government in 2016. That year, 22 women died in the criminal justice system, 12 of whom took their own lives. According to the report, this is the highest death rate for women in incarceration in the UK.

Women’s prisons in the UK are known to be overcrowded, despite women being much less likely to have committed a violent offence. More than half of female prisoners report having experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison, which campaigns to reduce the female prison population, said: “The closure of Holloway caused a ripple across the prison estate, with an increase in numbers of women coming into the other prisons with highly complex needs and rooms doubling up—resulting in more noise and chaos.

“For the first three months that women were moved to the reopened HMP Downview in Surrey, the prison was not yet fully up and running with very little activities and support services in place.”

The closure of Holloway was part of a £1.3bn overhaul of the UK’s prison service, which is to include the building of five new women’s prisons. The report said the best way to help the women’s prison population would be “community support and housing which enables women to address the root causes of offending”.

A number of campaign groups have called for the site to be used for social and affordable housing as well as more communal space and a women’s resource centre. The groups have the support of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but the bidding process for the site is now closed and the sale is expected to raise up to £70m for the Ministry of Justice.

The director of the Centre for Crime and Social Justice Studies, Richard Garside, said: “The closure of Holloway was botched and I hope the government has learned the lessons from this. The momentum behind this campaign highlights the potential for the positive redevelopment of former prison sites, using the land to promote human flourishing, rather than punishment and exclusion.”