There are some places you never think you’ll see the inside of and a modern-day prison is certainly one of them. Dana Prison in Shrewsbury, which closed in 2013, offers visitors a rare glimpse behind bars. Originally opened in 1793, the current main building dates from 1877. It was stripped of most of its fixtures and fittings when it closed, but there’s plenty to explore, some of which has been added in to give you a real sense of what it was like when it was open.
Whatever your opinion about prisons, they’ve been part of our criminal justice system for a long time and probably won’t be anywhere soon. They’re also a side of life most of us won’t encounter, so this is an informative and fascinating chance to see behind locked doors.
You can have a guided or self-guided tour, plus there are other ways to experience the place as part of a ghost-hunt, or sleep-over. We stuck to guiding ourselves around, and as it was a weekday, the place was all but empty which just added to the atmosphere.
The place is big with three wings, a chapel, workshops, and a kitchen. You can walk around almost all of it, bar the kitchen area and a few of the temporary offices outside. It was designed to take around 170, but in it’s later years held up to 450 due to overcrowding.
Originally A and B wing held the male prisoners whilst C wing was for women. Later, when women were sent to separate prisons, this wing was designated for so-called VP -Vulnerable Prisoners.
One of the most affecting areas was the execution room.
Hangings were held in public until 1863. Subsequent hangings were held in this room, via an inbuilt trap door. It’s surprisingly calm for a place where people were hanged. The trapdoor has long gone but a noose remains as a reminder of what this place was for.
A leaflet and panels around the prison inform you about what the place was like when it was open. There were special cells for first-night inmates, and cells for those on suicide watch. There was even a cell near the health-care wing that had been turned into a palliative care room for prisoners at the end of their lives.
In a newer extension were workshops where all convicted prisoners had to work.
It was an interesting, if unsettling experience, that I would nonetheless recommend. Old prisons have been turned into many things – hotels, apartments and like, and this may well go that way too if the developers get their way. But I think this is a fitting way for people to view a part of life we all try to ignore.
As a writer, it certainly offered up plenty of food for thought and a few story ideas. If you’re planning on doing anything with prison-based action, it would certainly help you visualise and plan out your setting.