Friday, 27 November 2015

Holloway Prison

One of the announcements of this week’s budget - sorry, spending review - is the closure of Holloway Prison. It’s an unlovely place and has apparently been found inadequate so few people are likely to mourn, although the gentrification of the Holloway Road area will of course put even more of a squeeze on those who can barely afford to live in London. 

I’m not even sure how far it can reasonably be gentrified. The Holloway Road itself is the main route from London to the North, a fast, wide, dangerous road with busy pavements and waist high railings cemented into the kerb at particularly nasty spots to stop people crossing or stepping into the road and being killed. 

I know the Holloway Road quite well because I used to work in Archway, and I’ve been inside the prison just once, only for a few hours while I was minuting a child protection conference. I’d walked round all that area – I always explore a new area when I start working in it – but I’d never really noticed the prison before. Perhaps because it’s not the truncated-gothic Victorian pile it was when the suffragettes were held there but a complete late 70s rebuild that from outside resembles nothing so much as a giant warehouse.

The first thing that happened on our arrival was a delay because some of the people who’d come to the meeting were substituting, and therefore not on the list. This caused enormous difficulty and phoning round. The second was that they confiscated all electronics. Personal mobiles, work mobiles and the one laptop someone had brought.

We then went through a small chamber that was, essentially, an airlock. A door in front that only opened when the one behind was closed.

Then we went through a yard. I call it that because I seem to remember no plants at all, but there may have been grass, struggling to cope in the shadows of four high walls. Unbroken walls, obviously. There may have been windows with bars – there were certainly doors with metal-reinforced corners and multiple locks. It was an object lesson in how flimsy something like the door lock on a house is, just a small yale affair with a handle on the inside, and perhaps a door with a glass or wood panel that could be smashed quite easily if you needed to get out. 

Here I knew I couldn’t get out and it was incredibly unsettling. I can’t think of an occasion since the age of about 8 or 9 when that has really been case. Even at middle school the gates were left open and I could, and did, walk out of the playground (this is not now possible in a lot of schools, especially in London, and I don’t know how the kids can bear it) but from the moment I had crossed that yard I knew I was trapped and wanted to get out. I’ve never liked confined spaces, even large ones, I don’t even like the Shepherds Bush Westfield shopping centre, which is vast and objectively speaking quite an attractive space, simply because once I'm well into it I can’t see a way out.

Holloway was not attractive. The paint was the same constitutional gloss we had on the school walls when I was young but apparently without the benefit of being refreshed between terms. The larger space we were taken into was cut into meeting room size spaces with something a little thicker than room dividers, solid at the bottom and clear plastic or glass above, so that the whole area could be taken in at once, albeit with some confusion of perspective and reflection. The lack of privacy was another discomfort.

I kept reminding myself I could leave, that all I had to do was reverse the process by which I had come in, and it might take a little while, but I would be let out. People talk about prisons being too comfortable but I think they underestimate the deeply unpleasant nature of simply being trapped.

I got through the meeting because I was writing, and with something else to focus on I could forget where I was. Afterwards though I felt like I was holding my breath all the way out again.

The meeting itself was odd. There had been loose talk about the prospective mother having been assessed as having a mental age of 12 but although she presented quite well – the vocabulary of an adult - she didn’t seem to understand quite basic information, and when she didn’t understand something she simply ignored it. Not in an irritated way, as when someone hears an unwelcome truth, but actually as if ignoring it would make it disappear or not matter. Which behaviour made me think of a much younger child than 12.

She was friendly though and oddly.. I don’t want to say comfortable, but reassured by the restrictions.

It was impossible to tell if any of this was due to being institutionalised rather than the learning difficulty.

It seemed a bit unfair that she was there at all, but through work I’ve come to realise that we have a mistaken idea about the police. A lot of the time they don’t really care whose fault something is. Their job (much like parents who want to defuse a squabble amongst children) is to deal with the present incident and prevent future incidents. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but we should probably lower our expectations and remind ourselves occasionally that they’re not infallible.

Getting out of the prison was little quicker than going in, but once over it was a real pleasure to get back to the absolute chaos of Holloway Road and the mad rush in Costa. I felt much, much safer out in the adult world and by myself, but I did still wonder what it would be like through the prisoner’s eyes. If you were, as this girl was, confused and intimidated and unable to process what you didn’t understand, and then on top had just come from somewhere like a prison with its structured day and its warders and walls, wouldn’t the environment I was in now seem threatening?

Too crowded, too busy, too many people too close, too much noise of hissing steam and grill alarms. Too triggering to the instinct to fight.

I really thought it might. 

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