07:16, March 18 350 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-18 07:16:04
Bad Girls review – a much-needed history of Holloway prison

HMP Holloway opened in 1852 as a house of correction for both men and women. The “terror to evildoers” became a women-only institution in 1902 and finally met its end in November 2015, when George Osborne, then chancellor, announced the prison’s closure. The female inmates were decanted.

In Bad Girls: a History of Rebels and Renegades, Caitlin Davies meticulously records a much-needed and balanced history of this home to “royalty and socialites, spies and prostitutes… Nazis and aliens, terrorists and freedom fighters” and thousands of very ordinary desperate women, many of whom had experienced violence at the hands of men, and entered prison knowing that as the sole parent for their children, they would lose their children into care.

In a groundbreaking inquiry into women in prison published more than 10 years ago, Baroness Jean Corston demanded a radical rethink of female incarceration. Davies writes that at the time of the report, 2007, “prison had become a place to send those who were addicted, abused, mentally ill and already excluded from society”. Corston said jail should not be “expected to solve social problems”. But this has always been the case, and still is today.

Davies also writes about those among Holloway’s staff who were caring, and pioneering governors such as Mary Size in the 1930s, Joanna Kelley in the 1960s and Tony Hassall from 2004 to 2006, who tried to contain the rats, cockroaches and filth. They introduced education and skills and encouraged staff to show humanity. When Hassall arrived at Holloway, according to the Guardian, staff were “cutting down up to five women a day from nooses”. Women made up 6% of the prison population but 20% of all suicides.

Corston argued for sentences served in the community and for help to be given to address trauma and addiction. Then, as now, most women committed non-violent crime. Corston recommended that the minority sentenced for serious offences should be imprisoned in small custodial units. Instead the government announced the building of five more women’s prisons (a plan that hopefully has stalled).

Davies shows with great skill that society has never known what to do with its rebellious women. She tells of the cruelty meted out to the suffragettes, violently force-fed but unbowed. “Fancy spending two months with 300-400 of the best women in the world”, wrote one cheerfully. She describes the preferential treatment given to the fascists Diana and Oswald Mosley, who lived together in Holloway during the second world war and the beatings given to teenagers who smashed up their cells. She records the copious use of the “liquid cosh” – drugs – to sedate “muppets”, the mentally ill and hurting. And the murderers, five hanged in Holloway, including Ruth Ellis.

Bad Girls is a chronicle both of the “doubly deviant”, women who commit crime both minor and major, but who also break the mould of how “good” women ought to behave – and the ongoing fight to replace a rotten model with something that could be so much better.

Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades by Caitlin Davies is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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