Jailbirds add life to UK prison famous for torturing suffragists

By Rady Ananda

The British Hen Welfare Trust re-homed 20 commercial hens at HM Prison Holloway on Oct. 3, as part of the staff’s garden program offering educational and therapeutic projects to its women inmates. This is a far cry from the days when Holloway imprisoned women for agitating for the right to vote, and then tortured them.

Volunteer re-homer at the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), Jean Gill, delivered the hens and spoke to prisoners about the work of the charity and advised them on hen care.

“This is a really interesting experiment and a real opportunity from the charity’s point of view,” said Gill in a press release. “It is apt and extraordinary on so many levels that some of the prisoners will be able to take care of something as vulnerable as a battery hen that has had a restricted start in life, that has been kept, literally behind bars in a small cage without access to sunlight or fresh air.”

Holloway is not alone in believing in the therapeutic benefits of keeping animals. At the minimum security Kirkland Prison, over 100 men work on a 180-acre farm/ranch and ornamental garden. Part of the land is commercially farmed with 25 acres dedicated to wildlife conservation. Longer-term prisoners care for a herd of rare-breed Longhorn suckler cattle.

“These animals … do have a very positive effect on their behaviour, confidence and sense of responsibility.”

Animal husbandry, farming and gardening are part of several prison systems. The Windlesham Trophy is an annual garden competition among all of England’s prisons, begun in 1983 “to give prisoners a sense of worth and encourage gardening excellence,” explains the Royal Horticulture Society. This year, the Thorn Cross Young Offender Institute in Cheshire took the prize.

Young offenders managed by the Southend Youth Offending Service took the bronze prize for their garden in July at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. In June, Holloway was among three of London’s prisons to participate in the Open Garden Squares Weekend, where private gardens are open to the public, as did Wandsworth and Wormword Scrubs prisons.

In the U.S., San Francisco’s Garden Project employs former offenders, providing them with alternative skills to reduce recidivism. But the Horticultural Society of New York, which runs the GreenHouse, begins with training inmates, and also finds jobs for them after release.

BHWT promotes a strong British free range egg industry and has re-homed 250,000 commercial laying hens since its inception in 2005.

In anticipation of the proposed EU directive banning conventional battery cages and the introduction of an enriched cage system in 2012, the BHWT supports clear labeling of the production method used on all products containing eggs or egg derivatives, widely used in processed foods. “This would allow consumers to distinguish egg products from hens housed in the enriched cage system which offers improved hen welfare, from those produced from the battery cage system which will continue to be used outside of the EU.”

Using Dietary Supplements to Improve Behavior

In addition to the physical and psychological benefits of working with plants and animals, nutrition is also being extensively studied. Initial research indicates that proper levels of nutrients can reduce people’s propensity to violence.

In early 2009, Bernard Gesch, a nutrition and criminology researcher at the University of Oxford, began a three-year study of 1,000 volunteers in the UK’s youth offender prisons (covering ages 15-21). He hopes to confirm or deny his 2002 findings on over 200 subjects that showed violence reduced by a third among those provided with nutritional supplements.

The trial, Gesch told John Bohannan of ScienceMag.com, “includes blood chemistry analysis and a battery of computer-based behavioral and cognitive tests designed to address the question that his earlier study could not: If a balanced diet does stem violence, how exactly does it do so?”

Bohannan notes several other studies that support the diet-behavior link. “A study within the Dutch prison service, similar to Gesch’s 2002 study, has also recently found that supplements reduce violence.” The idea is over 100 years old, but a paucity of rigorous, double blind studies prevents acceptance in the scientific community, he says.

Incarceration Rates

Gesch explains that the state’s “get-tough-on-crime” position has for years prevented funding of research into the diet-behavior link. That position also contributed to skyrocketing incarceration rates.

England operates 13 women’s prisons, two of which are privatized. “There was a 196% increase in the number of women remanded into custody between 1992 and 2002 compared to a 52% increase for men. Since that date the population appears to have stabilized at around 4,500,” wrote Michael Spurr, Chief Operating Officer in May of 2008.

New data released by the Ministry of Prisons reveals the UK’s prison population is still climbing, despite government goals to reduce the numbers. Arrest of protesters in August caused a record spike to 87,214 in September, reports the BBC.

Though the UK doesn’t come close to the incarceration rate in the US – one of every 100 adults – it’s still among the highest in Europe, according to the last report by the International Centre for Prison Studies (2008). ICPS calculates the incarceration rate based on the entire population (kids included). Below are select nations from the ICPS report, including the highest (USA) and lowest (Berkina Faso):

Of the 10.65 million prisoners in the world, the US – being 5% of global population – houses 22% of the world’s prisoners. While state prison populations dropped slightly for the first time in 2009, federal incarcerations rose, boosting total figures even higher. Incarceration rates increased despite that violent crimes dropped in each of the last four years in the U.S.

Two-thirds of women inmates are convicted of drug offenses, and most of them are poor. In 1925, the U.S. jailed one in 100,000 women. By 2006, it jailed one in 746 – most of this attributable to drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements. Compared to other nations, the female portion of the prison population is highest in the US – at 9% (2007 data). A good film to see is Perversion of Justice by Melissa Mummert (my review here).

The following chart shows the numbers of all adult inmates in state and federal prisons from 1910 thru 2009, graphically capturing the growth of the police state:

The Dark Side of Holloway

While nutritionists look to control violent behavior with proper food and supplements, it’s hard to ignore the saying, “violence begets violence.” Holloway has been under a cloud for the past ten years over abuse of prisoners, after an investigation revealed that male and female prison personnel sexually harassed, bullied and unnecessarily restricted them from small rights and privileges.

Private interests want to take over Holloway, as if greed can be more humane. A look at the brutality in US prisons, 8% of which are privatized, leads to the opposite conclusion. Studies have also found little to no savings for taxpayers from private prisons, contrary to their claims.

But Holloway is most famous for its torture of suffragettes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As Home Secretary in 1910, Winston Churchill allowed the torture of suffragette political prisoners who were often beaten, straitjacketed and force-fed after they initiated a hunger strike. Famous for saying, “I am not going to be henpecked on a question of such grave importance,” Churchill’s sexist use of the term applied to women who voiced political opposition.

In After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World, historian A.N. Wilson highlights the arrogant fallacy of suggesting political change would have ensued sooner had the women not ‘hen-pecked’ those in power. “In a somewhat similar vein, it is suggested that if only the blacks, or the Irish, had been patient enough to trust their lords and masters, they would have been given their independence all in good time,” Wilson points out. But it was “only after very disruptive action was taken on the ground by the ‘militants’” was any action taken by politicians.

Emmeline Pankhurst, her lawyer-daughter Christabel, and Annie Kenney were among many arrested in the early 1900s for disturbing political meetings with cries of ‘Votes for Women.’ The arrests prompted marches on Holloway Prison, made famous around the world by dispatches the women had smuggled out.


Holloway Prison, early 1900s

UK Black Friday and US Night of Terror

In 1908, Henry Asquith, a rabid misogynist, became Prime Minster of the UK. In response, the Suffragettes became increasingly militant, adopting a policy of guerrilla warfare that included breaking windows, setting post boxes on fire, damaging imperial relics, and even bombing or burning to the ground the homes of politicians opposed to the right to vote.

The suffragists were fully aware of the brutality of the British empire, often referring to the Boer Wars where UK troops murdered “savages” or burned their villages during the African land grab, as justification for their attacks on property.

Mostly, though, the women rallied outside the halls of power. On Nov. 18, 1910, Prime Minister Asquith sent police to brutally attack 300 women protesting outside Parliament, in an event that became known as Black Friday. That mass beating only encouraged increasing violence by the suffragists.

From a March 21, 1913 news report:

“‘Trevethan,’ a house at Englefield Green, Edgam, belonging to Lady White, widow of Field-Marshal Sir George White, V.C., the defender of Ladysmith, and at the time of his death Governor of Chelsea Hospital, was destroyed by fire yesterday morning. Messages left in a small rockery not far from the house point to the destruction being the work of militant Suffragists. An envelope bore the words ‘Votes for Women’; a half sheet of paper had the phrase ‘By kind permission of Mr. Hobhouse,’ and there was a full sheet of note paper with the message, written in a bold hand, ‘Stop torturing our comrades in prison.’”

Speaking at a January 1913 meeting, the elder Pankhurst advised that “militancy would begin again to-day, that the members of the Union would respect human life but not human property,” reported The Morning Post. Two weeks later, the home of Parliamentarian George Lloyd was bombed. In April, Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years at Holloway for “inciting” the violence. (For more related articles from 1913-14, click here and here.)

Though Holloway Prison has its own special place in suffragette history, the UK wasn’t alone in its violence against women demanding the right to vote.

While Bush, Cheney and Alberto Gonzalez waterboarded political prisoners in their War of Terror, filmmaker Katja von Garnier produced Iron Jawed Angels, starring Hillary Swank, about the latter-day suffragists in the U.S.

In response to hunger strikes, both UK and US prison authorities tied down and force-fed the women, a brutal form of waterboarding. In my review of the film (check out the historical photos), I wrote:

“A variant on water-boarding, and equally repugnant, is force-feeding, from which this film derives its title. Graphic attention is paid to the tubed force-feeding and Alice Paul’s resistance, along with others. When they are unable to keep their mouths closed, the forced feeding induces them to vomit. Later we see the bloody remains of their lips, and their weakening state, until press exposure wins public support. The women are immediately released and President Wilson urges Congress to pass the 19th Amendment.”

One scene re-enacts the “Night of Terror” of Nov. 15, 1917 at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Under President Woodrow Wilson’s reign, 40 club-wielding prison guards stormed the cells and beat US suffragists into unconsciousness, hanging some by their wrists. This isn’t just Hollywood; Katherine Hepburn’s biographer described the scene in detail. (Hepburn’s mother was a suffragist.)

When it comes to freedom for any subjugated class, there will always be blood. Power never relinquishes control without violence.

Opened in 1852 as a mixed prison, Holloway became female-only in 1903. Including the dozens of suffragists, it’s also famous for housing Oscar Wilde who was imprisoned for being gay. Holloway executed seven women throughout its history, and Britain’s last one in 1955.

During the suffrage years, the prison housed 1,050 women. But after being demolished and rebuilt from 1971-1985, it now houses less than 600. They did keep two griffins from the original gothic prison.

Until governments and society can find effective means of discouraging crime, it is certain that prisons will continue to be brutal and inhumane.

So, it’s only right to applaud them when they take steps toward improving the conditions under which inmates live. Whether that means gardens, hens, cattle, or better nutrition, we can all agree that parolees with a broad skill set and improved mental health will enrich not only themselves, but society as a whole.

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