WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Where the Bad Girls Go …

stalvis Icon Posted by Silja J.A. Talvi

June 22nd, 2006

Holloway used to be the UK’s most notorious women’s prison.

In truth, it still is. The reputation of the place, however, turned out to be far more scary than the place itself, largely owing to the leadership of the prison’s newest Governor, a man by the name of Tony Hassall. (In the UK, a Governor is our rough equivalent of a warden.)

From Gov. Hassall’s point of view, thinking about what happens to women when they’re released isn’t an afterthought, but a primary consideration. And the idea that a woman should have to endure sexual violence, racism, or any form of cruelty in her punishment is simply unacceptable.

As such, my introduction to the “notorious” British women’s prison, Holloway, wasn’t quite what you or I might have expected. Mind you, this is the prison that inspired and continues to inform some of the writing for the long-running, award-winning BBC television show, “Bad Girls.”

A visitor to the prison for the first time might have expected bars, body searches, and lecherous male guards. Instead, a visitor (even an unexpected one) would find women ironing their clothes in hallways, walking and working in the gardens, playing volleyball, and tending to their newborns. The lifers in the prison were hardly happy to be where they were, but nearly each and everyone of them had made a small home for themselves in a room where they were allowed a level of comfort I’ve never seen in an American prison. Their rooms were full opf personal belongings including quilts, books, hobbies and crafts, decorations, and the ability to dress how they preferred (something true for nearly all of the women at Holloway). All of them looked forward to their review dates. In England, life in prison is an indeterminate sentence, but review periods and parole eligibility are mandatory, and usually given to the women at some point.

There’s no such a thing as a paradise for prisoners. Prison isn’t supposed to be a vacation. One young woman I saw crouching on the floor of the prison’s 12-day detox unit was shuddering, sick, and terribly pale. This didn’t feel like anything akin to a vacation for her, or anyone else doing time away from family, friends, and life’s many different forms of comfort and escape.

Yet when I saw the Holloway prison swimming pool, I thought that that’s exactly what many Americans would think. That it was way too nice to be a prison.

But the point of it all was rehabilitation. Real physical, emotional, and vocational rehabilitation. Holloway still has its problems and issues, some of which I’ll be writing about in my book. But this is also a place where the Governor (the equivalent of an American warden) walks the halls, listens to women, and encourages complaints which are always responded to. “It’s healthy,” Gov. Hassall says frankly, “to encourage women to express themselves and for them to be heard.”

There are no guns at Holloway. No pepper spray, no chemical weapons. No batons, no weapons at all. No handcuffs behind prison walls. Many of these women are serving long sentences, sometimes for attempted murder and murder–often of abusive partners. Surprise surprise, the prison has figured out that *talking* to women and giving them the chance to express themselves actually keeps violence down to an absolute minimum.

Self-harm, however, is another issue: cutting and suicide attempts are rather common. The rage and the sadness, as it turns out, usually gets turned inward. The experience has given me much to ponder as, I’m sure, will my visit next week to Finland’s only women’s prison.

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