Rebecca Roberts and Claire Cain call for a managed reduction in the women’s prison population alongside the closure of HMP Holloway.

At this year’s Conservative party conference, Michael Gove apparently heralded in a new era for criminal justice reform. Prisons need to be managed better, he said. People in prison need to be educated, he said. People in prison need rehabilitation. Gove’s comments were broadly welcomed and many voiced optimism about the prospects for improving penal conditions.

Helping working people achieve their dreams?

On 9 November, the Ministry of Justice announced a ‘prison building revolution’. Victorian prisons are to be closed and sold and the dreams of ‘working people’ will finally be realised:

This will allow over 3000 new homes to be built, boosting house building in urban areas and helping thousands of working people achieve their dream of owning a home.

‘We are the builders’ George Osborne declared (repeatedly) in his autumn statement. In a surprise announcement, the first prison to close will be HMP Holloway – a women’s prison holding around 500 women in North London.

This was not quite what had been expected - and certainly not by the women and staff in Holloway, some of whom first heard about it from Osborne on television. Earlier government announcements had identified Victorian prisons as being ripe for closure. Holloway, while its design is flawed, is relatively modern and according to the Prison Inspectorate, a well-run institution. It is, however, on prime real estate. The women in Holloway will be moved (quickly) to HMP Bronzefield and a re-opened Downview prison.

This has little to do with supporting women in prison to access the education and job opportunities and services they need to move forward in their lives. It is likely that many women will be moved further away from their families, and the well-established services and support networks currently connected to Holloway.

Upon hearing the news of the prison’s closure, many women in Holloway were in tears, with their first thoughts for the staff losing their jobs and the bonds that will be broken by losing contact with their support workers – those trusted relationships being so important for effectively enabling women to take control. The pressure is now on for those in the prison service and third sector organisations working in Holloway to ensure the move is as smooth as possible and that the welfare of women in prison is at the forefront. This is particularly concerning with regards to Downview which not so long ago was converted to hold men. The decades of experience within the Holloway staff team and specialist knowledge of supporting women in gender-appropriate support services must not be lost.

What revolution?

Fixing the criminal justice system and fixing those people detained inside it has been a core concern of social reformers and lawmakers throughout the history of imprisonment. Whilst reforms are often driven by humanitarian objectives, they can reinforce the legitimacy of imprisonment and punishment. Gove’s approach is an iteration of what has gone before. The added value in this ‘revolution’ is that the government will be capitalising on prime real estate to cover shortfalls in public funds elsewhere. The benefit for prisoners or wider society is highly questionable.

A prison building programme will increase capacity in the system. Amid concerns about rising levels of self-harm and violence in prison, new institutions can include closer monitoring and tighter levels of supervision. We can build cleaner and more high-tech and low-staff prisons but they will still be places of cruelty and desperation. They will be just as isolating and painful and distressing – and do little to address the needs of people in prisons or address wider social problems.

Furthermore, by investing in the ‘corrections industry’, the foundations will be laid to continue expanding the infrastructure of punishment and control in net-widening interventions such as community-based punishment, electronic monitoring and satellite tracking.

Jumping off the merry-go-round

This is not a revolution. We’re going round and around in circles – in what Deborah Drake recently described as a ‘merry-go-round’. Perhaps it’s time to press the emergency stop button?

Prisons are, by their very nature, extremely limited in their scope to create safer communities. They are failing society, failing people in prisons and failing victims. They do however give the impression that something ‘serious’ is being done to tackle law-breaking. If politicians and policy makers are serious about protecting people who have been harmed by violence and theft, then we need a ‘whole society’ approach rather than new prisons.

Social and economic conditions are crucial to the levels of safety and wellbeing. Numerous studies demonstrate that more equal societies with lower levels of poverty and larger welfare states are healthier and tend to have smaller prison populations. Victims need a comprehensive and universal social insurance scheme to shield them from the impact of violence and property crime. This would include well-resourced places of safety, refuges, health and mental health services, all supplemented with direct financial and practical support.

If Gove wants to achieve his ambition of providing education and employment opportunities for people in the criminal justice system, then we should start closing prisons across the country. Given that the government has already committed to it – let’s start with HMP Holloway. The land should be handed over to local authority control on the agreement that it is used for much needed social housing.

Radically reducing prison numbers

The closure of Holloway should mark the beginning of a planned and managed reduction in the prison population. This would start with the 500 women serving sentences in Holloway. Most women in prison do not pose a risk to anyone but themselves. Indeed, this year has seen the highest levels of self-inflicted deaths in the women’s prison system for seven years.

Rather than moving women to Downview, why not simply reduce the number of places in the women’s estate by (at least) 500 next year, and continue to do so until we have fewer than 100 women in a significantly smaller and more humane custody system.

Within the criminal justice system, it would involve using early release, ending the use of remand and investing in community-based support services. Baroness Corston’s recommendation for small custodial units should be given serious consideration. Importantly, at the same time as reducing the numbers of people in prison, we also need to ensure that the wider services are available to support women in the community. These services should not be run by criminal justice agencies.

As Lauren White of Sisters Uncut, has argued, we need to ‘Recognise the link between life trauma and mental health problems; the criminal justice system should not be used as an alternative to treatment and treatment should include holistic approaches and psychological therapies’. White offers a comprehensive set of options for addressing some of the complex challenges that women face.

The women who end up in prison often have personal histories of poverty, trauma, neglect, abuse, mental health issues and violence, (as revealed in the Breaking the Silence comment series). We need to be mindful of, and informed by, these experiences, but resist the temptation to individualise the issues. Women need specialist support to help them move forward. This is also about understanding the wider social contexts and working to create mechanisms to empower women to take control of their lives.

The current system is broken and beyond repair. Criminal justice cannot be fixed. It is part of the problem.

It is time to abandon the already tested and failed systems of punishment and control that reinforce and compound trauma, inequality and harm. Close Holloway? Absolutely, but we also need to implement reforms that lead to the long-term reduction and abolition of the prison system as it exists today.

Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, and Claire Cain is Policy and Campaigns Manager for Women in Prison.