Dartmoor Prison to close

Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith

The Government has announced that Dartmoor Prison – a staple of the Moor since 1809 – will close.

Lucy Fraser, the Minister of Prisons, had said that Victorian-era prisons were needed when she addressed a parliamentary committee earlier this month. This therefore gave a glimpse of hope that the prison may be saved.

She said: “If the numbers… stay the same we need to be prepared to house people who come to prison and that will mean we need to keep our
Victorian prisons in operation.”

However, the Ministry of Justice have since clarified the statement, stating that this doesn’t apply to HMP Dartmoor: “HMP Dartmoor is closing in 2023 as we announced in 2013.”

Back in 2013, Dartmoor was put on a 10-year closure notice.  But in the preceding years a programme of new-for-old jails was outlined in November 2015 which was suspended in 2017 when the number of inmates rose.

A review last autumn confirmed that the old, expensive-to-run prisons would close. The minister’s recent confirmation that Dartmoor Prison would close has come as a shock to the local community of Princetown, which benefits greatly from the tourists the site attracts. It is expected that the closure will result in job loses as businesses are forced to shut.

“If it is closing, it’s a disappointment,” Mark Renders, a member of West Devon Borough and Dartmoor Forest Parish councils, and Dartmoor National Park Authority, who also runs a post office and shop in Princetown, said.

“People were quite upbeat when they heard it might be staying open. The prison gives employment to local people, and given how the economy is up here, that is very important.‘Visitors and tourists also call in at local businesses.The tourists would still come – many of them think the prison has already been closed – but closure would cause problems for the economy.”

The Prison Reform Trust expressed dismay at the announcement.  Spokesman Alex Hewson said: “Despite a promise in the Queen’s speech to improve prison conditions, the government has quietly abandoned the policy that would have made the biggest difference. Until this week, there was a stated intention both to replace prisons such as Dartmoor with new prisons designed for the 21st rather than the 19th Century, and to reduce overcrowding.”

Having originally been built and opened in 1809, the prison was granted a Grade II heritage listing in 1987 and has since developed a rich history which even warrants its own museum. Speaking of this, locals are unsure of what the future may hold for the site. Nationwide, rumours are that Victorian prison buildings will be redeveloped into housing across the country, however Mark Renders says: “I can’t see that happening here as there is too much history to the site and there would be a lot of opposition.”
Having housed many a notorious criminal in its time, Dartmoor Prison has been favoured over the years for its remote location which can see escapees lost forever to the harsh moorland surroundings should they escape.

The ‘Mad Axe Man’ Frank Mitchell had a reputation for his violent robberies and claimed there wasn’t a lock he couldn’t undo, after escaping three times from prisons and psychiatric wards. But it was with the help of the famous Kray twins that he escaped in 1966 without facing the bleak moorland alone. While he initially remained in safety using a getaway car provided by the Kray twins, the criminal eventually became “too hot to hold” and was shot by members of ‘The Firm’ days later.

Other inmates over the years at Dartmoor include the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, who was held at the prison for fraud before he was released and became a notorious murderer, a double agent from WW2 known as Snow who made the first breakthroughs in the German enigma codes, and McVitie, a known drug trafficker who after his release became famous for his death at the hands of Reggie Kray in 1967. McVitie’s death would later lead to the East End gangsters’ arrest and life imprisonment, as the Krays saw themselves involved with Dartmoor Prison’s criminals once again. Despite its chequered past, when reflecting on Dartmoor Prison’s role in the justice system today council member Mark Renders said: “I don’t think they will be able to close the whole place by 2023 as there’s just not the space elsewhere to house the inmates, perhaps a slow closure yes, but we shall see.”

An important institution, at least for now, for both the local community and the national justice system, Princetown’s residents are still waiting with bated breath to learn what will become of the prison in 2023.

Local Life