On Saturday 27 May, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut reclaimed the old visitor’s centre of Holloway Women’s Prison. Eight activists entered the building via an open window and several protested on the roof, while 150 rallied outside. After a ten-hour stand-off with over 70 mostly white and male police officers, the centre was successfully secured just after midnight.
In July 2016, Holloway Women’s Prison was closed suddenly. The 600 women incarcerated there were quickly relocated outside of London to the already overcrowded HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield in Surrey. This relocation moved many of these women much further away from their friends, families and support networks.
Sisters Uncut have reclaimed this site of state violence, and plan on holding the space all week to run a community festival of activities and workshops including community quilt making, a boxing class, legal rights training and a creative writing session. Here are five reasons why we have reclaimed the building.
1. Public land must be used for public good.
Holloway Women’s Prison stands on eight acres of public land. Since the closure of the prison, property agents GVA have been contracted to manage the sale of the land. Notorious for estate regeneration and social cleansing across London, GVA aim to maximise profit from prime real estate.
Sisters Uncut do not want to see this public land privatised and used to build yet another gated luxury property development. What we want is for this land to be used for the benefit of the existing community, with affordable social housing and a women’s building to provide support for women and non-binary people.
2. Holloway Prison has a history of violence against women.
Holloway Women’s Prison has a painful history. Sarah Reed was tragically found dead in her cell at the prison last year, and Yarl’s Wood hunger-strikers have been moved there to separate them from other migrants. The suffragettes were force-fed within its walls, and women fighters of the Easter Rising were incarcerated there. By occupying this space, we are turning the victimisation of women into an expression of power, giving political agency back to women.
3. Vulnerable women need services, not sentences.
Women who have suffered gendered and sexual violence are disproportionately likely to face imprisonment. 46% of women in prison report have experienced domestic violence, and 53% of women in prison report having experienced abuse as a child.
The prison system also violently reinforces the gender binary. In the space of one month in 2015, two trans women were found dead in their prison cells in male prisons.
Sisters Uncut want to draw attention to the criminalisation of vulnerable women. Prisons are not the solution to sexual violence and trauma.
4. Government cuts have blocked women’s bridges to safety.
This week the Conservatives announced a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, pledging to introduce tougher sentences for cases involving children and a new watchdog to ensure “proper support” for victims. But tougher sentences are useless when 79% of survivors do not report their violent partner or ex-partner to the police due to a fear and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, and “proper support” means nothing when survivors have nowhere to go.
Two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, and ideological austerity cuts make it even harder for women to leave dangerous relationships. 34 specialist services have been closed under the Tory and Coalition governments since 2010, and 1 in 3 women are turned away from refuges due to lack of space. In Islington, there are only 27 refuge beds.
Sisters Uncut demand the visitor’s centre at Holloway Prison be used as a women’s building to support local domestic violence survivors, and that the new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill restores funding to refuges and domestic violence services. Survivors aren’t safe if services aren’t secure.
5. Many vulnerable women will be unable to vote in the general election.
Vulnerable women living in refuges with secret locations and those with no fixed abode can put themselves at great risk by being listed on the electoral register. Despite promises made by the government to allow domestic violence survivors to vote in elections anonymously, these plans have not been enacted in time for this general election. Women and non-binary people who are held in detention centres and prisons are also barred from voting. This means a disproportionate number of women of colour and survivors of domestic violence are excluded from the democratic process. Sisters Uncut are occupying Holloway Women’s Prison in order to act as a voice for these women, whose own voices will not be heard.