Whilst poring over Caitlin Davies’ eminently readable and lively history of HMP Holloway, Bad Girls A History of Rebels and Renegades, I was put in mind of a supervisory experience which has long stayed in my memory. I had been allocated responsibility for preparing a pre-sentence report on Elsha (not her real name), who was then on remand at the prison awaiting sentence for an unnervingly complex fraud offence.
At our interview, she remonstrated so volubly about the of the conviction that obtaining any information to assist in sentencing proved very challenging. The nub of her outrage centred on what she deemed the advice proffered by a legal advisor (who had later moved into the upper reaches of the judiciary!). Because of this, she felt that she was the aggrieved party and as a consequence this grievance meant she could not acknowledge her part in the proceedings without feeling a miscarriage of justice was being perpetrated.
Following her custodial sentence at the Crown Court (my report endeavoured to balance such concerns alongside other information supporting the prosecution), she was shortly thereafter transferred to open resettlement prison conditions in light of her assessed low-risk categorisation and I arranged to visit her in due course.
At the time this was my first (but one of many) visit to this open prison. My initial impressions very much confounded my preconceptions of what such an institution would look like. I read the published material which noted that, 'The building is a Grade II listed country mansion dating from 1570, and still maintains a working farm on the prison grounds'. I was impressed with what appeared to be the low key, pastoral atmosphere set against the urban maelstrom of Holloway.
On arrival I was escorted to the 'drawing room' where Elsha was waiting for me with a formidable bundle of paperwork to assist her in her appeal against conviction and sentence. During our meeting, I began to better appreciate the emotional strain that this prosecution was having on her, and during this interview was also made aware that her properties (she owned accommodation which she rented out) were being ably looked after by one of her ' assistants but her detention was clearly 'not making things easy'.
Alert to the need that I had a specific through-care remit in preparing her for release and resettlement (whilst her appeal was in motion). I later met with her assistant who helpfully called the probation office to update me on the challenges of property management and maintenance! During the remainder of her custodial sentence (her appeal was still outstanding on release), I was regularly regaled with letters and correspondence that covered her appeal but also the demands of serving her time. Her articulate resolve to clear her name also meant that she would at times assist other women prisoners with their legal and civil concerns at the prison.
On her release she reported on licence to the probation office. I noted when we met an evident weariness in her responses. Although unwavering in her attitude to her offences, she was persistent in her belief that until such time her 'legal advisor' was called to judicial account, this matter would be an unresolved and festering legacy. To her credit, she complied with the terms of her licence, and in fact I distinctly sensed that the space offered to her in our meetings to 'ventilate' her concerns was reciprocated in a desire to assist others. In fact I had alluded in one of our meetings, albeit with some hesitancy, to mention another client who was shortly awaiting release for a prison sentence for a not dissimilar offence of dishonesty and was likely to be homeless.
After some negotiation and hurriedly arranged telephone exchanges, he was offered a 'desirable' property and this was sustained throughout his period on licence. At one of our final office meetings, Elsha was 'elated' having learnt that after all her efforts to see that a deserved justice was being meted out to her erstwhile 'advisor'. Furthermore a prosecution had been instigated and he was due to stand trial for a wider fraudulent conspiracy.
This elation might well have been short-lived as, after the expiry of her licence period, I received a doleful telephone call from Elsha. I braced myself for what I was about to hear (the receptionist had explained that she was very tearful), but she merely said, 'Mike, how could they?', and then she ended the call.
I tried to contact her without success and was left with an anxious uncertainty about what she had meant. It was only sometime later when reading an evening newspaper that her abridged remarks made sense. Her former advisor had appeared in court and the press article informed the reader that the court had taken the extraordinary step of adjourning the case indefinitely. The article stated that he was at the centre of one of the biggest scandals to engulf the English judiciary. There was an outcry when lawyers for *** said fraud charges against him should be dropped because he was 'too stressed' to face trial.
I stopped what I was doing and suddenly felt an aching sense of what Elsha had all along said to me, whilst worn down by the stress of her prosecution, ‘Mike, there will be no justice for me until the truth comes out’.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer