So Gloucester Prison is set to close in March after 222 years in operation. I’m sure that there are many old lags that will be happy to see the end of the place, but I will be sad to see it go. Of course it is very sad for the 200 employees now facing either the upheaval of re-deploying or, worse, being made redundant, but I am also sad both on a personal level and from the point of view of the loss of a piece of Gloucester’s history.
My dad’s in there…
From a person point of view I will be sad to see the prison go because my dad spent a large part of his life there. I should hasten to add that this was not as an inmate, but as a prison officer. This distinction wasn’t always clear when we were young and, as we walked past the queues of visitors waiting to go in, much to my mother’s embarrassment, my brother would loudly proclaim “my dad’s in there!”
Because my dad worked at the prison for so long I know that it can be hard work, demand long hours and is a thankless task – much is said in praise of nurses and teachers, but little of those who work every day with the incarcerated: often nasty people who the rest of us would take measures to avoid and who are unlikely to show any respect for those charged with keeping them locked up. Those 200 employees whose jobs are now on the line deserve better.
From Castle to Gaol
The prison is also a piece of Gloucester’s history. A Norman castle was built shortly after 1066 and in the early twelfth century a new castle was built nearby, more or less on the site of today’s prison. By the fourteenth century, however, the castle was falling into disrepair and most of it was demolished, leaving just the tower, which was pressed into use as the county gaol.
Then came the eighteenth century, a time of philanthropy and reform, and civic minded citizens became concerned about the state in which prisoners were kept. At the county gaol there was only one courtyard, no bath and only one sewer. The one day room measured 12 feet by 10 feet and was occupied by up to 65 prisoners herded together indiscriminately regardless of age, sex or offence. Several children were born in the prison as a result of the licentiousness of the prisoners. Conditions were damp and disease ridden to the extent that it was touch and go whether those incarcerated would live to see their trial much less serve their sentence: there were 3 deaths from disease in gaol to every execution
Robert Raikes was one of those reformers concerned about the state of our prisons, and he used the Gloucester Journal to campaign for prison reform. The main drive for change, however, came from the wonderfully named George Onesiphorus Paul, who turned his attention away from aristocratic high living to push his radical notion that prisoners should not only be punished in prison, but reformed.
A Model Prison
Demolition of the old castle began in 1787 and a new gaol was built on the site; a model prison, built to meet the principles of reform. It came into operation at the end of July 1791 – however, it wasn’t quite finished and William Nichols made history as the first escapee the following October when he took advantage of a builders ladder to get over the wall.
Sadly, time moved on and the model prison in Gloucester did not keep up with modern developments. For years it has been the subject of damning reports: despite the best efforts of the staff, the ageing prison was condemned for its degrading physical environment and cells described as dirty, run down and poorly ventilated. It is one of only ten prisons in the country where the process of slopping out continues.
Many people suggest that, having broken the law, prisoners deserve what they get, but Robert Raikes and George Onesiphorus Paul must be turning in their graves.
So what is to become of the prison once it is closed? Parts are Grade II listed, so there is (hopefully) no question of it simply being knocked down. This means that it is ripe for developing into something interesting and novel as part of the city’s on-going development. It is in prime position to be part of the Blackfriars development, which will be greatly enhanced by having the prison as part of the development rather than an obstacle to it.
There is talk of possibly converting the prison into a hotel or flats or using it as a combined courts and police building. Whatever it is used for I hope that the development is done imaginatively, using the fabric of the old prison to create something interesting and unique for Gloucester.
I also hope that we all get an opportunity to have a tour around the place before development starts – I have always wanted to have a look at where my dad worked for so long, but have never wanted to go to the lengths of being arrested to achieve my wish.
There is much more information on the history of both the castle and the prison in my book “The Story of Gloucester”