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End of an era at Victoria Road prison 22 April 2008

THE opening of the £41.7 million prison at Jurby marks the dawning of a new era in the provision of secure custody in the Isle of Man. It will also consign the Victoria Road jail in Douglas to a place in the history books.

Overcrowding and human rights issues have led to much criticism in recent times and painted the Island in a poor light on the international stage. By the end of the 20th Century it was clear that the Victorian jail had reached the end of its useful life and the construction of a new secure facility was placed at the top of the political agenda.

Victoria Road PrisonBut while Victoria Road has struggled to cope with the demands of modern society it was once praised as being among the best prisons in the British Isles.

A report in 1903 by HM Inspector of Prison Major Darnell stated that:

‘The present accommodation consists of 21 cells in the male and eight cells in the female prison. ‘The cells are light and airy, and well ventilated and compare quite favourably with those in the best English prisons — boarded floors, clear glass in the windows and external gas boxes. They were uniformly clean and well kept.’

However, since then the Island’s prison population has continued to rise, placing a severe strain on resources. Two new wings, C and D, were opened in July 1989 by the then Minister of Home Affairs, the Hon Arnold Callin MHK. C wing opened as a detention centre to house young prisoners (aged 17 to 21) and featured 19 single cells and two dormitories that could hold a further 18 detainees.

The role of C wing was subsequently changed to adult accommodation and the dormitories converted to provide a dining room and an exercise area. D wing housed female inmates and provided five single cells and an additional 10 places in two dormitories in a building separate from male prisoners.

Even with the introduction of two new wings, it was evident that the growing prison population and modern requirements could no longer be met at Victoria Road. Successive Home Affairs ministers, political members, officers and prison management have been very conscious of their responsibilities and the need to provide better conditions for staff as well as prisoners.

After much debate, Tynwald gave its backing to the construction of a new prison at Jurby in July 2005. The northern facility will provide 138 cells, compared with 92 at Victoria Road, and boasts substantially improved health, fitness, training, behavioural and educational resources that will play a crucial role in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

While work has taken place at Jurby over the past three years, the new prison has actually been hundreds of years in the making as successive administrations have sought to keep pace with the evolving needs for places of confinement.

The Island’s medieval fortresses also served as the first prisons and the crypt at Peel Castle was used as a jail until 1780 when its last inmate, Thomas Kneale, was granted early release. He was considered too weak to serve his full seven-day sentence on account of the severe cold! By the late 18th Century, Castle Rushen housed most of the Island’s criminals and debtors.

However, after 1765 fines paid in court were no longer used to maintain it and some parts had no roof or floors. Governor Smith (1777-1793) protested to the Home Office that prisoners were starving and exposed to the weather, but it wasn’t until 1813 and 1827 that its rundown buildings were converted to create a secure jail.

Occasionally a death sentence was passed and John Kewish, who had been found guilty of murder, was hanged on a scaffold in the Debtors’ Yard in 1872. His body was buried in the stone yard. Women serving sentences could bring their infants into prison and occasionally babies were born there. Milk, bread and beef tea was provided for babies aged three to nine months where needed. Prisoners were required to work and their labours included stone breaking and oakum picking — pulling out fibres from old rope so they could be re-used — or producing items such as mats.

By the 1880s it was obvious that Castle Rushen needed to be replaced. Conditions were poor and with no way of separating prisoners it had become increasingly difficult to keep order. The first inspection by the Chairman of the Commissioners for Prisons in England and Wales took place in 1885 and his report recommended that a new prison be built for 30 prisoners.

Although some members of Tynwald were against allocating the funds, a site was chosen at Victoria Road in Douglas and the building was designed by Manx architect James Cowle. The new prison had an impressive red brick frontage, but was built mainly of stone.

The Gaoler, Mr Fayle, had his living quarters and offices at the front gate with the main prison block inside the prison yard, surrounded by high walls. On the northern side were three warders’ cottages and gardens. The building was in use from April 1891 — which was the last time the Isle of Man moved its entire prison population.

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