I’m in a quandary about this programme – or rather its subject matter – and having a little argument with myself about it… one half of me thinks “It may as well be a holiday camp” and the other, “Those poor kids…” because kids they are, for the main part.
And how sad that many of them prefer being in prison to being free. That said, suicide attempts are by no means rare – the staff call a suicide attempt a ‘Code Black’ – so for some, I guess it’s not quite the bed of roses that some of the girls seem to believe it is.
As we saw last night, there are times on the young offenders’ wing when it can feel almost like a party atmosphere, but the mood can change in an instant. A new girl on the unit was found with a leather belt around her neck and had stopped breathing. She was given mouth to mouth resuscitation and thankfully started breathing again.
Her life was saved because of the quick response on the part of the officers, one of whom was asked if they worry that they might be moments too late.
She replied, “There’s always that worry, but I think it’s about knowing the women. We knew she was on a downer so we were observing her anyway.
“It was noticeable that she was quite quiet and withdrawn, but it was a very, very, very lively loud night and we had so much going on, there wasn’t anyone to sit and hold her hand, perhaps, and I feel a bit bad about that, but there isn’t time always to do that.”
Kirsten was one of the inmates who was enjoying the “lively loud night” and in the main, she’s of the opinion that it’s ‘Hotel Holloway’ in that it provides her with a refuge among a surrogate family and keeps her away from the drink, drugs and violence on the outside.
That said, she’s not always cheerful and contented in her environs; Kirsten’s been cutting herself at times of stress since the age of 11 and her anxiety about her imminent release was becoming too much to bear. “Last night I cut my wrists and my arms so I’ve got to be watched constantly now.
“At least in here I know I can’t drink and can’t do the drugs, I can’t get back into that way of life where I go around stealing from shops, selling my stuff just so I can get a drink.”
It was shocking to hear that by the time they get to Holloway, 90% of young offenders like Kirsten have mental health problems and/or addictions and they’re also highly prone to self harm.
Holloway Governor Sue Saunders said, “I think there’s a strong belief that if only we can get the right interventions for young offenders they might be ripe to change.
“They’re young, they deserve a chance, they may not have had the best start in life and we want to provide them with some good role models, and teach them about boundaries which can be a big issue with young offenders.”
Kirsten was coming to the end of a four month sentence for being drunk and disorderly, assaulting a police officer and carrying a knife and despite her frequent self-harming while in prison, she revealed that she was very worried about leaving.
She said, “I really do like it here. I know it’s weird to say but I’m dreading going. I’m really upset that I’ve got to leave next week. I’ve got stability in here, I know where I’m going to sleep every night, I know when I’m going to eat.
“When that door’s locked, I know I’m going to be safe. I know I’m not going to be kicked out in the middle of the night.”
Kirsten’s “downfall” has been alcohol and as well as causing her to get into trouble with the law, it’s also damaged her pancreas.
“I love my vodka, I drink loads of it” she said, adding, “Even though I get really nasty on it, I drink loads of it. One minute I’ll be laughing and joking with you and the next minute I’ll want to beat the hell out of you for no reason, like it’s just got out of control.
“When I was 16, a doctor said to me he’d be surprised if I live till 18 because of my drinking.”
As her release date arrived, Kirsten said to a prison officer, “Please don’t make me go.”
The officer replied, “You’ve got to go, you’ll be back anyway.” Kirsten happily concurred and said, “I’ll be back Monday.”
And sure enough, when Kirsten was released she was met by an old friend who had a present of some beer and vodka for her and later that day, Kirsten got drunk, got in trouble with the police ended up back in court.
She’s not alone in this recidivist behaviour; within two years of being released from prison, two out of three young people re-offend.
However, some light relief was provided last night by “bezzi mates” Charlotte and Katie; there are two things they won’t tolerate in Holloway and they are stealing and bad manners.
Katie was quite clear about the choices vis-à-vis jail behaviour, “Don’t come to jail if you don’t like the way it’s done” she said matter of factly and in the way one might say of an immigrant, “If you don’t like it here, go home”
And Charlotte explained why there’s a great deal of lesbianism in the prison… “We’re young, right? We’ve got a load of hormones, innit…”
But when she’s not indulging her hormonal demands, she likes nothing more than watching Banged Up Abroad because it makes her feel better about being in prison herself.
“It makes me feel better ‘cos they’re banged up with, like, no telly, no nothing, and it makes me feel better that I’m banged up in England.”
It’s the equivalent of Big Brother for the prison population I suppose; people living in prison watching other people living in prison… bizarre.
Charlotte and Katie are both inside for violent offences. Charlotte, who’s just 19, needed money for her drug habit and was caught trying to rob someone while carrying a knife.
Katie’s been in Holloway before and like Kirsten, she’s a heavy drinker with violent tendencies. This stint in ‘Hotel Holloway’ was for smashing a glass in someone’s face after downing ten pints of lager.
We also met Alexis who’s 19 and has a tendency to self-harm as well as to become violent and smash things up. Last night, we saw that she’d smashed up her TV and while the prison officers needed to get into her room to check she was safe, they also had to protect themselves. Assaults on staff in Holloway more than doubled last year.
Sue Saunders said, “Obviously when a number of staff have to go in, it’s very unpleasant actually to have to use control and restraint techniques on a woman and they don’t like to have to do that, and it’s very much a last resort.”
However, it’s a last resort that’s often needed and there are tried and tested procedures to protect both prisoners and staff – which include the officers wearing protective clothing. In this instance, when they did go into Alexis’ cell, she was sitting quietly in her toilet cubicle. She hadn’t hurt herself and offered no resistance. This was the third time she’d smashed her TV so it was decided that for the remainder of her sentence – eighteen months – she wouldn’t be allowed a TV in her cell.
Alexis is serving six and a half years for importing drugs and is battling with depression. Like many of the women in Holloway, she experienced trauma as a child which began at the age of 13 when her mother died.
She said: “When she passed away I started drinking really hard, smoking weed every night, I just went off the rails, stopped going to school, I had nothing to live for. I ended up in care.”
Being in care is a common story among the women and many have existed for years without any real love or stability in their lives. However, another inmate, Eva, came from a stable family in Estonia and had never been in trouble before being arrested, aged just 17, for smuggling drugs into Britain.
She was 19 months into her sentence and with another nine months to serve, she was counting down the days to her release. “I haven’t seen my mum for 19 months and I feel it now. I miss her so much, I just want to go home and say sorry for them, sorry for everything.”
Eva’s something of a success story and she’s used her time in prison productively. She didn’t speak a word of English when she was arrested but she’s been studying hard and now has a number of qualifications. In addition, her good behaviour was about to pay off; she’d applied to be released early by offering to be deported, an offer which was accepted so she’ll soon be free and back home with her family.
Let’s hope she won’t end up being one of the women who repeatedly re-offend, but actually, I don’t think she will. I think for Eva, the system worked… it’s just unfortunate that she’s in the minority.
So, my argument with myself still rumbles on; are our prisons too ‘soft’ and that’s partly why so many women end up back there, or are these women so damaged by their lives to date, they’ll never be rehabilitated and able to stay out of trouble, even if they were in prisons such as those featured on Charlotte’s favourite show, Banged Up Abroad?
What do you think? Is Holloway a holiday camp or is it genuinely punishment and rehabilitation? Let us know your thoughts.