Sisters Uncut activists on the roof of old Holloway Prison visitor’s centre in 2017. Image: North London Sisters Uncut
Campaigners have welcomed news that the former Holloway Prison site will feature affordable homes for women leaving the criminal justice system – but warn the development must also fill a “massive hole” for women’s services.
It’s five years since the biggest women’s prison in Europe closed its doors and community groups have been campaigning ever since for the land to be used to help female offenders turn their lives around.
As a planning consultation opened on the site this week, Islington Council deputy leader Diarmaid Ward announced five per cent of the social rent homes earmarked for the site will be allocated to women who have been affected by the criminal justice system.
Developer Peabody, which bought the site from the Ministry of Justice in 2019 with the help of £42m from the Mayor of London’s Land Fund, has pledged to make 60 per cent of the homes on the site “genuinely affordable”, and build a women’s building and a public park.
“Islington Labour have been fighting to get genuinely affordable homes and a women’s building on the site ever since the beginning,” said Ward. “When it was sold by the Ministry of Justice they had one aim and one aim only and that was to get the biggest possible receipt for the site so they could use the money elsewhere.
“Islington Labour is not about to allow this government to use Islington as a cash cow. We need sites in islington to be used for the benefit of the entire community. I am very keen that the legacy of the prison is reflected in our housing allocations.”
In total there will be 980 homes on the site with 415 social rent homes as part of the development, according to planning documents. Sixty of those social rent homes are set aside to be “extra care” social rent one bedroom homes.
Social rent homes are the most affordable type of housing and also one of the most sought-after in the UK’s housing crisis.
But the loss of the prison has left a dearth of services to support women who have spent time behind bars to rehabilitate back into society, according to campaigners.
The plans set out a 1,500 square-metre women’s building on the site but campaigners have called for a “bigger and more ambitious” building to ensure women have access to all-around support in a bid to cut reoffending.
Will McMahon, chair of the Community Plan for Holloway (CPfH), said: “The Community Plan welcomes this in perpetuity commitment, we believe that all women affected by the criminal justice system need quality homes and also support services to thrive, which is why we want to see a bigger and more ambitious women’s building on the site than is currently being offered in the final plan Peabody has submitted to the council.”
Rachel Seoighe, a lecturer in criminology and part of pressure group Reclaim Holloway, also welcomed the housing announcement but added that a women’s building focusing on prevention is also needed.
“There is potential to do so much more with the Holloway site – to build a spacious, holistic women’s building that serves as a support hub for women in the community, to support women through poverty, trauma and substance abuse, which are the main drivers of women’s criminalisation,” said Seoighe.
“These homes might help to pick up the pieces after a woman has been criminalised but a visionary women’s building would support her in the community. Reclaim Holloway and the CPfH women’s building working group have been calling for an actual building, not a single floor under a residential block.”
For some women who spent time at Holloway prison, the site still represents salvation and the legacy must be maintained.
Treasures Foundation provides therapy and housing to women who have a history of misuse and offending in east London.
Mandy Ogunmokun, founder and CEO of Treasures Foundation, turned her life of addiction and crime around after coming out of Holloway. She joined the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust in September of 2005 as an apprentice drug treatment worker in HMP Holloway.
Ogunmokun told The Big Issue the number of services running at the prison was “quite phenomenal”.
“There is a massive hole in the services without the prison.” said Ogunmokun. “Prison saved my life, it is so sad to have to say that but it’s true. I had to go to prison to get a detox, I couldn’t get that in the community. It was all under one roof. We need those services otherwise the women will suffer and the next generation will suffer too.”
“They closed the prison because they said it wasn’t suitable for women but what are they doing for women? It felt like they wanted the land.”
Vivian Lyons, 52, now works on Treasures Foundation’s projects team after the charity helped her to turn her life around.
She told The Big Issue: “I’m an ex-offender and I’ve spent a lot of time in prison and I needed a lot of support. We need that when we come out into the community.
“Five per cent of flats is not enough. That building meant so much to me and it is representative for so many women in London who have been in and out of it.
“There needs to be a place where women can go when they come out of prison for all around support that runs for 24 hours. I don’t think it’s right that we have doors closed on us.”
The planning consultation is open until December 15. Residents can have their say on the development here.
A Peabody spokesperson said: “We share the view that the women’s building at Holloway should be an exemplary facility which offers support to women, specialist services and flexible spaces for community uses.
“Alongside hundreds of new social rented homes, we hope the facilities in the building will provide a positive and lasting legacy as the site becomes a new neighbourhood. In line with standard practice, many of the people moving into the new social rented homes will be nominated by the council from their waiting list in perpetuity.”
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