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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 00:49 GMT
Holloway: Screams and suicide
Women inside Holloway Prison
"Cockroaches and pigeon droppings everywhere"

A report has criticised Holloway women's jail as having a "wholly inadequate" regime, utterly unsuitable for younger prisoners.

It's a scenario only too familiar to former inmate Elizabeth, who spent two-and-a-half years inside Holloway's walls, and now visits prisoners there.

"It's a shock, it's a real shock. There's no preparation, nobody explains to you how it works, what the rules are, what to expect.

"I was in shock. I was sedated, but even through that..."

Elizabeth recounts how, shortly after she arrived, she saw a suicidal girl sitting wrapped in a blanket on the floor of her single cell.

I've seen people pull clumps of their hair out and throw it out the window

The girl was refused a request to be moved to a dorm for company, "and the next morning the girl was dead".

That the latest report describes the jail as filthy comes as no surprise, she said.

"There's cockroaches all over the place, and pigeons. Pigeons actually fly into your cells, and there's droppings all over the dining room."

Rubbish piles up where it is thrown from cell windows, said Elizabeth - including human excrement, tampons, sheets, even clumps of human hair.

"Some of the women are really distressed. They might be coming off drugs. They might be mentally distressed. I've seen people pull clumps of their hair out and throw it out the window".

And tension often builds up through sheer lack of exercise and physical exertion.

Gym closed

"You're supposed to go outside for exercise for 30 or 40 minutes a day, if you're not on lock-up. Actually when I say exercise, you just stand about in the yard.

"But that's 'weather permitting', so if there's a single drop of snow or spit of rain you don't go. You can actually spend months and months without going outside."

There's people 'clucking' - coming off drugs - who are shouting and screaming all night, and you can't block it out

The gym, she said, now seems to be closed "most of the time" because staff are needed to keep control on the landings.

The single most distressing thing about Holloway, she said, was the self-harm and suicide.

"The closeness to it, witnessing it, people screaming, shouting, wrapping toilet paper around themselves and setting themselves on fire."

23-hour lockdown

Conversely, the single change that would most improve life at Holloway would be decent mental health care, she said.

"In the medical wing you've got people who in the worst case scenario don't even know where they are, and are wandering up and down shouting random things like 'mince pies out of the window'.

ELIZABETH'S TYPICAL DAY
Up at 7.30
15 minutes for breakfast and, if necessary, collecting medication
Exercise for 30-40 minutes, weather permitting
Working, for example as a "womble" cleaning the grounds, to 11.30am
11.30am - lunch (crisps and sandwich), lock-up to 2pm
Working from 2 to 4.30pm
Locked in cell until 5.30pm
Dinner and free association, staff shortages permitting, 5.30-7.30pm. Often spent queuing, often unsuccesfully, for phone
7.30 Back to cells. Often, this would be at 5.30pm
"There's people 'clucking' - coming off drugs - who are shouting and screaming all night, and you can't block it out.

"It all adds to the oppressive, depressing atmosphere.

"Even as quite a sane person you can get mental health issues in there, as I did, as lots of people did, and if you're already unstable it's even worse."

Elizabeth says most problems stem not from staff or system cruelty - but through sheer overcrowding.

It is not unusual, for instance, to be locked in a cell or dorm for 23 hours a day because there are not enough staff to look after all the women.

"There's an incredible amount of lockdown, an incredible amount," she said.

"You're meant to have free association from Monday to Friday, 5.30pm to 7.30pm - but all the time I was there I never had it more than three times a week."

No showers

That is the period when inmates are allowed to bathe - and thus women can often go days without a shower.

Young offenders feel they've got to prove themselves, so that's when you get most of the bullying, the trouble

"You have a sink in your cell, but there's also a hatch and a glass panel, so you never know when somebody might look through. So you're kind of jumping up and down trying to wash inside a towel.

"And the heating and hot water could go down for days and days and days, so in winter it's physically too cold to wash in your cell."

The lack of free association can also mean that women are returned to their cell - if they have been lucky enough to be out during the day working - at 5.30pm.

"You might get your dinner passed through a hatch and eat it next to your toilet. And then you stay there until 7.30am the next morning.

"Last Christmas the girls didn't get out at all and they were fed through hatches."

Drug bullying

Elizabeth was in her thirties when she was jailed, and found that hard enough. She agreed with the report that young girls simply should not be in Holloway prison.

"They shouldn't be in there. It's much, much harder for young offenders. They feel they've got to prove themselves, so that's when you get most of the bullying, the trouble."

Inmates perceived to be vulnerable would often be bullied for cigarettes, phone cards, or the massive amounts of prescription and narcotic drugs which do the rounds, she said.

Decent staffing levels would radically improve Holloway, she said.

But ultimately, Elizabeth said, there was no answer. "It just needs pulling down".

See also:

18 Feb 03 | England
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