Places to go (now we can go places) I’m digging out and sprucing up blog posts to bring fantastically inspiring places to all you writers out there. Stay safe.
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 closed in 2013. Stripped of a lot of its fixtures and fittings, it now offers visitors a rare glimpse behind bars. Originally opened in 1793, the main building dates from 1877. There’s plenty to explore giving 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 was an informative and fascinating chance to see behind locked doors.
You can have a guided or self-guided tour, or 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 intriguing atmosphere.
The place is pretty 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 prisoners, but in it’s later years held up to 450 people 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, and their wing was changed to accommodate VP or Vulnerable Prisoners.
One of the most affecting areas of the place was the execution room.
Although now outlawed, executions were held inside the prison during its working life. Hangings were held in public until 1863, and after that they were held in this room with an inbuilt trap door. It’s surprisingly calm for a place where people died a violent death. Right next to the room is a smaller room where the condemned prisoner would spend their final night. It’s almost impossible to imagine the feelings and thoughts of someone in that situation, with death quite literally on the doorstep. The trapdoor is gone but a noose remains as a reminder.
Panels around the prison inform you about life when the place was like when it was open. There were special cells for first-night inmates, and 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. Even when the executions stopped, death remained.
A newer extension housed workshops where the prisoners could earn a small wage and qualifications.
It was an interesting and unsettling experience, but one that I would nonetheless recommend. I think a tour gives the best appreciation of the place above any other experience. Old prisons have been turned into many things – hotels, apartments and like. But perhaps if more people could see inside them, we’d be able to have more informed conversations about crime and punishment.
And then we get to its interest to a writer. There are plenty of chances for inspiration. It could be as it is now, a setting for a haunting or even a team-building dramady. Or perhaps as it was then, from Victorian times when executions were regularly held, or more recently with overcrowding and stretched staff. If you’re planning on doing anything with prison-based activity, I’d definitely try and get a visit in. It would no doubt really help to visualise and plan out your setting.