I’m not sure what I was expecting when I tuned in to Holloway on ITV1 last night; maybe I thought it’d be something like a Bad Girls crossed with Prisoner Cell Block H sort of thing, or a ‘bleeding heart’ liberal soliloquy on how society has failed those who are the inmates and how unfair it all is on them.
Had it turned out to be so, it would’ve set me off on a rant about how we, the taxpayers, are funding criminals having three meals a day and living life akin to that inside a holiday camp… but I was wrong on most counts.
That said, had I only heard this from inmate Chloe, I’d have felt justified in a rant…
“Roof over the head, three square meals a day, gym, swimming pool, you can get your hair and nails done.”
However, the programme went into great – and often very sad – detail about the reasons why the majority of the women in Holloway end up there, and the conclusion one was left with is that for some, Chloe included, it’s the only ‘home’ they’ve got and the only place they feel safe.
For those addicted to heroin, it’s also often the only place where the women who are genuinely committed to doing so can get off heroin. Because of this, by the end of the programme, I was also left with the impression that detoxing is Holloway’s primary function for the majority of those who enter its gates.
There are actually very few inmates who aren’t drug addicts and many of them deliberately commit crimes just so they can be sent to Holloway and go onto Ivor Ward for detox.
One regular inmate, Nicola said, “It’s the same old routine every time. You come to jail, come down here do the detox and when you get released you go back out and you do the same old thing again, and then you end up coming back in again, it’s just boring now, I don’t want to do it anymore.” But do it more she did…
Nicola, who’s just 20, has done the “Holloway detox” five times but said she was adamant that this time, she’d “stay clean” on the outside, but when she added, “I might have a little dabble here and there, but probably only once a month or something” it was evident she’d be back in short order.
I’ve never been a heroin addict but I don’t suppose you need to be to know that “a little dabble” doesn’t exist; you’re either “on” it or you’re not. Nicola herself recognises this fact: “You can say you’re going to stop taking drugs…but as soon as you’re out of those gates it’s a different thing.”
And predictably, Nicola’s time on the outside was brief; just under three hours actually. After her release, she missed her appointment with her probation officer because she’d headed straight to the pub with the money she was given to set herself up on the outside.
She explained her rapid return with total equanimity and lack of remorse. “Half an hour it took me to go out and score some drugs, between leaving the gates and going home. I got done for suspicion of shoplifting and then ended up punching a police sergeant.”
This time, Nicola was sentenced to five months for assault.
Then there was Chloe, who, we were told, “has anger issues” which has to be the understatement of the year. She was in Holloway on this occasion for wrecking the B & B she’d been staying in.
Chloe’s a familiar face in Holloway and during the filming, was serving her fourth prison term of that year. The last time she was in Holloway, she created a trail of destruction including barricading herself in her own cell before being moved to the segregation unit for her own safety.
We saw several of Chloe’s “anger issues” demonstrated in the programme; for instance, after becoming involved in an argument she threw her dinner on the floor of the corridor and then flooded her cell. Officers then decided to put her in the segregation unit “for her own safety” and she was told she’d face “disciplinary action”.
The disciplinary hearing ruled that she’d have to stay on the segregation unit for a week, which she did not take well. In her cell, she began using ripped up clothing and bedding to make ligatures which continually forced the staff to come in and cut them off so she couldn’t hang herself. This is, apparently, a familiar pattern of behaviour. We were informed that in the past, Chloe’s kept this up for hours, which puts a constant strain on officers and resources.
Governor Sue Saunders said of Chloe and other inmates who self harm: “Self harm generally is an attempt to hurt themselves because they don’t like themselves; sometimes it’s an attempt to shout out for help, to express their desperation.
“It’s a huge responsibility, not only keeping them alive but trying so hard to help them to change and to stop hurting themselves and reach out and get some help.”
When Chloe was approaching the end of her 21 day sentence, she didn’t have anywhere to go so Holloway’s resettlement unit was her immediate destination where she would be given “assistance with all aspects of life on the outside”.
This apparently consists of being given some warm clothing, and because she’d be homeless, she was told they’d provide her with a tent and groundsheet.
Housing Officer Kay Worley said of Chloe: “Nobody wants her, they won’t take the risk. Because she can’t get on with people in prison, she’s not going to get on with anybody.”
Asked if Chloe may be in a tent at Christmas, Kay said that yes, she could be, and added: “Terrible isn’t it? In this day and age is that not terrible?”
As her release date became imminent, and Chloe feared living on the streets, her behaviour deteriorated and once again, she started trying to strangle herself with ligatures.
As the officers tried to move her to a cell where she’d be “easier to manage”, she lashed out at them leaving a visible and raised handprint on one officer’s back.
When she was asked if she ever gets frightened of what Chloe, Prison Officer Amanda Williams said: “No, because I know that we can manage her. That’s what we’re trained to do. It’s sad that she’s so young and she’s going out to nothing. But there’s nothing we can do, we’ve done everything we can and we can’t help her any more.”
As it transpired, Chloe was freed and went to live with her mother, however, she was back within a week for the fifth time.
Nurse Tracy Welch explained why: “It’s a constant circle, release, outside, lack of resources, let down by us? And then she will commit another crime to come back to Holloway because she feels safe, it’ll either be one week, two weeks but Chloe will be back and then we start the whole cycle again.”
The fact is that around 80% of the inmates have drug issues and many have mental health problems. These are people unwanted by society and who have often been victims of sexual or physical abuse in childhood – or both – and many have been in and out of care and then prison all their lives.
Another inmate, May, revealed that she’d put herself in Holloway on purpose after applying many times for detox treatment and being told she wasn’t a priority. She said: “I went out and committed the smallest crime I could commit which would give me the shortest sentence possible.”
She wanted to get off heroin for the sake of her five year old daughter, who she described as her “inspiration” and “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done.”
May was serving a six week sentence and desperately wanted to be drug free before her release.
She said: “I want to be clean when I get out of here, I don’t even want to be on a tablet, a Nurofen, anything. If you get released when you are still on Methadone you will use. I just want to be totally clean.”
One week into her accelerated detox, she faced being released and said: “I’m kind of worried, Thursday they’re going to put me out of jail, its crazy because I want to be fully off it. I might as well do my detox here, get fully off it, get something good out of it. I’m constantly coming in so I may as well get something good out of it.”
May left Holloway without completing her detox and on a daily dose of 15 ml of methadone.
“When I get down to ten mil I know I’m going to be ill. I know what I’m like. It’s hard not to do it but I’m going to my mum’s. If I stay at my place I’ll be around the gear so I’ll just go straight to my mum’s.”
We were told at the end of the programme that May had “stayed clean and booked into a residential rehab”.
One inmate who wasn’t a heroin addict was Lorraine, 41, who was a new arrival at Holloway, and full of trepidation about what lay ahead. Lorraine, a mother of three, was on remand for three weeks while awaiting sentencing for GBH. She’d run over someone in her car following an argument.
Lorraine initially struggled to cope in Holloway. “Listening to these keys going every five minutes is doing my head in. I’ve got a thing about all different noises in my head.
“In my room I’ve got the TV going, there’s the radio going, then someone else with the radio on, with headphones but going full blast and the keys jangling every five minutes and I’m like my head’s ready to explode”
However, once she’d accepted her fate, Lorraine began “bonding” with other inmates and was horrified to learn that she was to be moved to another prison to serve out the rest of her sentence.
“They said I’m going to Downview” she railed, “but I’m not going nowhere! I’m not having my mum traipse down there and wait God knows how long for me to see my son. I’m not having it, it’s so wrong. You get settled in a place then all of a sudden they want to up and move you.”
She didn’t seem to realise that she didn’t have the option of “not going nowhere” given that she was in fact a prisoner and as such, was not going to be afforded the luxury of choice.
As Governor Sue Saunders said: “The message you try and convey to the women is that you probably wouldn’t choose to be here, but whilst you are here, for goodness sake make the best of it.
“The people who have a difficult time at Holloway are the people who rebel against everything, and eventually most of them have to come round anyway, because you can’t really buck the system, you have to get on with it.”
In the end, Lorraine was released from Downview Prison in February and is now free but “on a tag”.
This was a surprising, shocking, sad and often disturbing documentary and James Cohen’s affecting film-making disproved many of the assumptions I’d had about prisons and their inmates simply by doing what a documentary of this genre should do; observing without bias and documenting the stories of the people involved.
Of all the inmates we met last night, Chloe affected me most deeply. What a desperately sad life lies ahead for this girl… and short of some intervention – though of what kind I can’t imagine – she’s likely to spend the rest of her life in and out of prison until she ends up either dead in a gutter somewhere or actually manages to hang herself with one of her infamous ligatures.
It was a fascinating programme and if you missed it, I’d highly recommend watching it on ITV’s catch-up service.