When I talk about prisons and the criminal justice system on this blog, I’m almost always referring to American facilities and cases, but today, I’m going to change things up a bit and talk about Dartmoor Prison in the United Kingdom (UK).
Officially known as HM Prison Dartmoor, this facility—known for its high granite walls—is a category C men’s prison that’s located in Princetown, high on Dartmoor in the county of Devon.
Obviously, things are a bit different in the UK when it comes to prisons. There are no Departments of Corrections or a Federal Bureau of Prisons. Instead, the facilities are operated by the respective prison services in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Dartmoor Prison is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, which is currently in the possession of Prince Charles. It’s operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Category C means that the inmates are “those who cannot be trusted in open conditions, but who are unlikely to try to escape.” In the United States, the equivalent would be a medium-security prison.
Today, we are going to talk about this historic prison and learn a few interesting facts about it. I’m going to answer the question—can you visit Dartmoor Prison?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
- The history of Dartmoor Prison has an American connection
- Is Dartmoor Prison still operating?
- Can you visit Dartmoor Prison?
The history of Dartmoor Prison has an American connection
The history of Dartmoor Prison dates back to the early 19th century, when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France. They were at war between 1803 and 1815, and during that time thousands of prisoners were taken.
The floating prisons known as “the hulks” were horrific—poor sanitary conditions, no fresh air, and a poor diet—and the death rates were sky high. So, they decided to build a prison on land. They opted for the location of Princetown on Dartmoor.
Work began on the prison in 1806, and construction was completed in about three years. The first prisoners arrived on May 22, 1809, and the place was full by the end of the year. Thus began the prison’s notorious history of being overcrowded.
In April 1813, the first American prisoners from the War of 1812 arrived at Dartmoor, and that made the overcrowding even worse. Outbreaks of diseases—pneumonia, typhoid, smallpox, etc.—killed more than 11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans. To this day, their graveyards and memorials remain at the rear of the prison.
When the wars finally came to an end, the prisoners were repatriated and the prison was empty by 1816. The facility was subsequently closed down until 1850, when it was opened up as a penal establishment for criminals.
Under the supervision of contractors, new cast iron cells were built and arranged by artisan convicts. Those were later superseded by stone cells, but those were all ultimately demolished and replaced with the buildings that are at the prison today. All of which were built by inmates.
During World War I—thanks to the Military Service Act of 1916 that introduced compulsory Conscription—Dartmoor was used as a labor camp for Conscientious Objectors, aka “Conchies.”
In 1932, there was an infamous mutiny when fifty men armed with homemade weapons started a riot during morning exercise. They immediately took control of the yard and the surrounding buildings. They also set the Administration block on fire which caused the loss of irreplaceable prison records.
Once the trouble was quelled, the ringleaders were tried and convicted. It was ultimately discovered that the riot was a cover for an unsuccessful escape attempt.
Is Dartmoor Prison still operating?
Today, Dartmoor Prison is still open and operational. It continues to be a category C facility for non-violent male inmates and white collar criminals.
“They are not here to be punished; their punishment is loss of liberty tempered by help towards reform and rehabilitation,” the Dartmoor Prison website reads. “Dartmoor is committed to providing a safe and educational environment where men can learn new skills to help them on release.”
Inmates are housed in single cells, which is also where they eat. Community showers and telephones are available so the inmates can communicate with family and friends. Educational and vocational training is also available.
It was announced in 2019 that HMP Dartmoor would close in 2023 as part of a plan to close and replace older prisons. However, in December 2021 it was confirmed that Dartmoor would remain open “beyond 2023.” The facility currently holds 640 prisoners.
Can you visit Dartmoor Prison?
Family, friends, and significant others of inmates at Dartmoor Prison are currently allowed to visit the facility. You must be on an inmate’s approved visiting list to get inside the visiting room.
If you are looking to visit Dartmoor Prison for a tour—thanks to its numerous appearances and mentions in pop culture—you can visit the Dartmoor Prison Museum. However, you can’t tour the actual facility where prisoners are housed.
The Dartmoor Prison Museum will teach you about “life inside one of the world’s most famous and notorious jails.” You’ll see life-size models of Napoleonic soldiers and learn about the Princetown Massacre, which is when guards fired on rioting American POWs captured during the War of 1812. You’ll also see different uniforms worn by different inmates
The museum features outdated items used in the prison industry throughout the years, like straightjackets, manacles, and the dreaded flogging apparatus. You’ll also see weapons made by prisoners over the years, like shivs and knuckle dusters. The museum also has stories of famous escapes and escape attempts.
How did you become familiar with Dartmoor Prison? Are you making plans to visit? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Dartmoor Prison to stay open 'beyond 2023' https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-59755473 The History of Dartmoor Prison https://www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk/history_of_dartmoor_prison.php 200 Years of Prison Life https://www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk/ Dartmoor Prison Guidance https://www.gov.uk/guidance/dartmoor-prison