Welcome to the Muppet House

by Nick Davies

Observer, 23th March, 1986

(Extracts from a full broadsheet page article)

The day begins at eight. Down the long corridors women with keys bang on blank wooden doors. Through eye-level slits they inspect the waking women inside: some stay curled tight in their corners; others start to moan or howl. A rhythmic thumping begins - the sound of a woman punching her forehead against the wall. Welcome to the Muppet House.

It is nothing much to look at from the outside, just the ground floor of a neat red-brick block in a corner of Holloway Prison in North London, home for 42 women in 26 cells and four four-bedded dormitories, officially titled C1, the psychiatric wing. It gets its unofficial title from the other prisoners, who refer to its inhabitants as 'Muppets.'

The noise is the first clue to what is happening inside: from the first moans of the morning it can sometimes go on all day in a miserable cacophony of foul abuse and pitiful wails and screams, occasionally broken by the crashing of someone destroying all the cardboard furniture in her cell. ...

Others are much more disturbed: Janet says the bed is going hot and cold and things are dropping from the ceiling; Cathy who has lived on the streets since her mother abandoned her, has just disowned her new-born baby; Sally spends her day 'head banging,' not happy till she has marked herself; Greta, glowering at the eye-slit in her door, threatens to attack anyone who is rude to the staff.

Some are charged with the most minor offences - breaking a window or leaving a restaurant without paying the bill. Others have killed their own children or indulged in arson sprees. All are to a greater or lesser degree racked by mental illness.

Many of their cells are completely bare, just a bed bolted to the floor which is covered with old linoleum. For safety reasons there are no radios or record players. Meals are pushed in through a slot in the door. The women can be locked up like this all day, day after day.

Trapped behind their doors, they turn in on themselves. Self-mutilation has become a part of life on the wing - 'cutting up' they call it. They break the lights or smash chips off the sink and saw away at themselves with the splinters. Some try to kill themselves; last December, Ann Franklyn succeeded, hanging herself from her own cardigan sleeve. ...

... the wing's main objective, instead of treatment, is safe containment. But with women who are desperately ill and liable to damage themselves, that objective has daunting implications.

Almost every object becomes potentially lethal: the top of an old-fashioned radiator is for cracking your skull; the bed is to be dismantled for ammunition; the open window is a hook to improvise a gallows; clothes, blankets and floor coverings are to be torn up to strangle yourself; records, radios and light bulbs are for smashing to cut yourself with the pieces; cigarettes are for lighting fires; toilets and sinks are for blocking to flood the cell; the walls are for head banging.

Safe containment thus becomes the torment of hours alone in a bare cell with every possible distraction removed - an experience which inevitably makes sick women sicker. ...

In a prison, containment also involves discipline. In C1 this means that women are punished for the symptoms of their mental illness ...

The Women of C1 - Four Studies in Despair


(with some slight deviations from what actually happened)

Lucy left the wing last year. She was a bright, intelligent, outgoing girl from a stable home who had worked as a nanny in North London. She took her work very seriously and began worrying about whether she would get a good reference from her employers. Her anxiety reached such a pitch that in March 1984 she took an overdose of pills. Then began a relentless slide.

The overdose cost her her job. Back home with her parents she became so depressed that after a couple of months she overdosed again. She became a patient at a psychiatric day centre and moved into a flat with another girl, but just as she seemed to be settling down, she had a furious row with her flatmate and was ejected.

A passing taxi picked her up, but the driver stole some of her belongings and may have sexually assaulted her. She developed an obsessive hatred for taxi drivers and started travelling without paying her fare.

She spent 17 weeks in C1, most of them alone in her cell chanting "nobody loves me" for hours on end. She was never the same again and after her release in February 1985 she staggered through nine months of deep depressions, making several suicide attempts. Finally, in November, she jumped from the roof of a multi-storey car park and killed herself. She was 21.

... All the way through the hierarchy, from the prison officer on the ground, through the nurses and governor grades up to senior officials at headquarters, there is widespread agreement that most of these women should not be in prison. Yet they are.

Some of them are there because of the refusal of magistrates to grant them bail. On average, some 32 of the 42 women on the wing are on remand awaiting trial. Some of them are, indeed, too disturbed or dangerous to be bailed, but official figures suggest that of these 32 should be at liberty. ...

The National Health Service has resolutely refused to provide suitable places. Ordinary local mental hospitals tend to throw up their hands in horror and plead that they do not have the security to cope, even though prison psychiatrists believe that some of the women are well suited to open conditions ...