When I talk about prisons and the criminal justice system on this blog, I almost always mean US facilities and cases, but today, I’m going to switch things up a bit and talk about Dartmoor Prison in the UK (UK).
The facility, officially known as HM Dartmoor Gaol, known for its high granite walls, is a Category C men’s prison located in Princetown, High on Dartmoor, Devon.
Obviously things are different in the UK when it comes to prisons. There is no Department of Corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Instead, the facilities are run by the respective prison services in England, Scotland and Wales.
Dartmoor Prison is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and is currently owned by Prince Charles. It is operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Category C means that the prisoner is “one who cannot be trusted in open conditions, but is unlikely to attempt to escape”. In the United States, it is the equivalent of a medium-security prison.
Today, we’re going to talk about this historic prison and learn some interesting facts about it. I’m going to answer this question – can you visit Dartmoor Gaol?
In this blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:
- The history of Dartmoor Prison is linked to America
- Is Dartmoor Prison still in operation?
- Can you visit Dartmoor Gaol?
The history of Dartmoor Prison is linked to America
Dartmoor Gaol dates back to the early 19th century, when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France. They fought from 1803 to 1815, during which time thousands of captives were taken.
The floating prison dubbed “The Hulk” was horrific – with poor sanitation, no fresh air, poor diet – and a ridiculously high death rate. So they decided to build a prison on land. They chose Princes Town in Dartmoor.
Construction on the prison began in 1806 and was completed about three years later. The first prisoners arrived on May 22, 1809, and by the end of the year the place was full. Thus began the notorious history of prison overcrowding.
The overcrowding was compounded when the first American prisoners of war from the War of 1812 arrived in Dartmoor in April 1813. Outbreaks of pneumonia, typhoid, smallpox, and more killed more than 11,000 French and 271 Americans. To this day, their burial and memorial remain at the back of the prison.
When the war finally ended, the prisoners were repatriated, and by 1816 the jail was empty. The facility was subsequently closed and opened as a correctional institution for criminals until 1850.
Under the supervision of a contractor, craftsmen built and arranged new cast-iron cells. These were later replaced by stone cells, but both were eventually demolished and replaced by the buildings that house the prison today. All of them were built by prisoners.
During the First World War – due to the introduction of mandatory conscription by the Military Service Act of 1916 – Dartmoor was used as a labor camp for conscientious objectors, aka ‘Conchies’.
In 1932, 50 men with homemade weapons rioted during morning exercises in the infamous mutiny. They immediately took control of the yard and surrounding buildings. They also set fire to the administration building, resulting in the loss of irreplaceable prison records.
Once the troubles are quelled, the ringleaders are tried and convicted. It turned out that the commotion was a cover for a failed escape attempt.
Is Dartmoor Prison still in operation?
Today, Dartmoor Prison is still open and functioning. It remains a Category C facility for nonviolent male prisoners and white-collar offenders.
“They are not here to be punished; their punishment is to mitigate the loss of liberty by helping with reform and rehabilitation,” reads the Dartmoor Prison website. “Dartmoor is committed to providing a safe educational environment where men can learn new skills and help them find their way out. “
Prisoners are housed in single cells, which is also where they eat. Community showers and phones are available so prisoners can connect with family and friends. Education and vocational training are also provided.
HMP Dartmoor announced in 2019 that it would close in 2023 as part of a plan to close and replace the old prison. However, in December 2021, Dartmoor confirmed it would remain open “beyond 2023”. The facility currently houses 640 prisoners.
Can you visit Dartmoor Gaol?
Family, friends and significant others of Dartmoor prison inmates are currently allowed to visit the facility. You must be on the inmate-approved visitation list to enter the visiting room.
If you want to visit Dartmoor Gaol – due to its many appearances and references in popular culture – you can visit the Dartmoor Gaol Museum. However, you cannot visit the actual facility where the prisoners are held.
Dartmoor Gaol Museum will introduce you to “life in one of the world’s most famous and notorious prisons”. You’ll see life-size models of Napoleon’s soldiers and learn about the Princeton Massacre, when guards fired on rioting American POWs captured during the War of 1812.You will also see different uniforms worn by different prisoners
The museum showcases outdated items used by the prison industry over the years, such as tights, handcuffs and grisly flogging apparatus. You’ll also see weapons made by prisoners over the years, such as pocket knives and knuckle holsters. The museum also contains stories of famous escapees and attempted escapes.
How did you become familiar with Dartmoor Prison? Do you have plans to visit? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Dartmoor Prison to stay open 'beyond 2023' The History of Dartmoor Prison 200 Years of Prison Life Dartmoor Prison Guidance