Britain's disused prisons are being turned into hotels and student accommodation


Since 2010 more than a dozen prisons in the UK have closed their doors. Declared ‘surplus to requirements’ by the Ministry of Justice, they are now being sold off to developers. The unlikely future for these buildings, which range from Victorian gaols and medieval fortresses to Sixties’ institutional blocks, could be in the form of hotels or even student accommodation.


Blueprint

Draughty galleries with lines of closely packed cells and echoing sounds of locking doors: this is the vision of prisons in popular imagination -- think Ronnie Barker in Porridge or Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. Philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham introduced the idea of the Panopticon in the late eighteenth century, characterised by the principle of observation and arranged in a circular pattern so the guards could see into all of the cells from an observation tower.

Today, many of the buildings housing the inmates of the UK's modern prison system are still ancient Victorian fortresses, designed to contain, regiment and punish. But with prisons closing at a rate of around three a year, what happens to these out-of-date, often badly constructed and overcrowded buildings? Unlikely 'reforms' to these structures -- originally designed to house the more villainous and dangerous members of society -- have yielded luxury hotels or even student accommodation.

HMP Canterbury was sold for £7m to Canterbury Christ Church University. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage
HMP Canterbury was sold for £7m to Canterbury Christ Church University. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage

Since 2010, a slew of run-down British prisons have been declared 'surplus to requirements' according to the Ministry of Justice, in part to reduce the prison budget by £30m a year and in part to make way for a contentious new 'super prison' (due to open by late 2017). This modern 2000-capacity prison will be built in Wrexham, North Wales, and a second large prison is planned for the southeast of England. Lend Lease has been selected to build Wrexham and the project is expected to cost £212m.

HMP Shrewsbury in Shropshire was put on the market earlier this year Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage
HMP Shrewsbury in Shropshire was put on the market earlier this year Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage

The Ministry of Justice has also confirmed new house blocks -- mini-prisons with places for 1,260 inmates -- at four sites across England. Older, smaller prisons are more expensive to run, so HMPs Blundeston, Dorchester, Northallerton and Reading have all seen their doors close. HMP The Verne will be converted into an Immigration Removal Centre, providing around 600 additional places to hold immigration detainees, while there are doubts over the future and cost-effectiveness of the 19th-century, fortress-like HMP Dartmoor, which was originally built to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars and is now owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Also closed are HMPs Shrewsbury, Gloucester, Portsmouth, Wellingborough, Lancaster and Essex, the estates of which range from Georgian and Victorian buildings to Sixties' institutional blocks.

It may seem like an unlikely repurposing, but these historic institutions are fitted with a large number of rooms with en-suite facilities that make them perfectly suited to the hospitality sector. It is an attraction that is commanding seven-figure sums. Witness the sale of HMP Canterbury for £7m -- planning permission not included or guaranteed -- to Canterbury Christ Church University this year. The university has announced that it has earmarked £2m to convert the 19,000 sq m site that once housed 400 inmates into student accommodation.

The 12,000 sq m riverside site could be turned into flats or a hotel according to the estate agents. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage
The 12,000 sq m riverside site could be turned into flats or a hotel according to the estate agents. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage

It may have been the successful transformation of the old Oxford jail into a Malmaison hotel back in the Nineties that prompted another bidder to have the confidence to offer £2m for the Grade II-listed HMP Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The 12,000 sq m riverside site enjoys enviable views and could become flats or a hotel. HMP Gloucester, designed by William Blackburn, the leading prison architect of the Georgian era, occupies an even larger site close to the River Severn, and is now the centre of attention thanks to the redeveloped docks, while in Portsmouth, HMP Kingston boasts the medieval architecture that made Oxford jail such an attractive proposition. As Britain's oldest prison, HMP Shepton Mallet, built in 1610, has even better historic credentials. Mind you, the architectural fabric can retain grisly histories: Shepton Mallet once housed the Kray twins, and seven prisoners were hanged in Shrewsbury prison.

A report in 2005 found HMP Shrewsbury to be the most overcrowded prison in England and Wales. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage
A report in 2005 found HMP Shrewsbury to be the most overcrowded prison in England and Wales. Photo Credit: James O. Davies/English Heritage

However, such notoriety did not deter the developers of the Liberty -- the luxury Boston hotel that opened in 2007 -- from using the Charles Street jail, which once housed the Boston Strangler. Nor did Midnight Express associations worry Four Seasons when putting their imprint on a former Istanbul jail. And these are not the only precedents of institutes of incarceration transforming into houses of hospitality.

The Celica prison in Slovenia's capital Ljubljana -- built in 1882 to house errant soldiers -- has been cited by Lonely Planet as one of the hippest hostels in the world. Then there are the Långholmen Hotel in Sweden, the Jailhotel Löwengraben in Switzerland, the Ottawa Jail Hostel in Canada and the Karosta prison in Latvia -- although in the latter, where bunks go for just €9 a night, there has been little attempt to usher in improvements.

The exterior of the Liberty Hotel, which once housed the Boston Strangler when it was a jail. Photo Credit: Kwesi Budu-Arthur/CJA
The exterior of the Liberty Hotel, which once housed the Boston Strangler when it was a jail. Photo Credit: Kwesi Budu-Arthur/CJA

In general, though, the repurposing of prisons has been seen as a worthy and financially worthwhile challenge, with designers embracing the conundrum of bringing light and luxury to an environment originally rife with darkness and despair. Architects who have taken on the task have had to carefully weigh up the advantages of preserving original features, which play to the building's heritage, or opening the buildings up to overcome an inherent sense of claustrophobia.

The pioneer developer in Britain was the Osborne Group, which in 1995 achieved the transformation of an Oxford jail into a Malmaison hotel, boasting every creature comfort within its old bones. 'As the majority of prisons of this sort are listed, complete gutting is rarely an option,' explains director of development, Andrew Ryan. 'You have to work with the existing fabric. The walls of these prisons are massive and not easily propped, due to their curved roofs.

The Liberty Hotel in Boston transformed the Charles Street Jail in 2007. Photo Credit: Kwesi Budu-Arthur/CJA
The Liberty Hotel in Boston transformed the Charles Street Jail in 2007. Photo Credit: Kwesi Budu-Arthur/CJA

While converting the Oxford jail over 10 years, from conception to completion, we worked closely with the conservation officer and spent a lot of time and money on preserving key features. The intent was always to show its past as a prison, while, by the use of luxurious finishes, ensuring that it is now clearly seen as a hotel. For example, one wing still looks like a prison, but has the addition of new, glazed balustrades alongside the old, as well as deep-pile carpets and furniture.'

Ryan says that while the Osborne Group has obtained planning permission for a second prison conversion at Armagh in Northern Ireland and is negotiating on two further sites, he finds the current rash of interest in such projects ironic: 'There was no interest in converting prisons to hotels until we did it at Oxford,' he says. 'We showed it was possible and then others jumped on the bandwagon.' He is not really surprised, pointing out that a hotel conversion is a logical reuse of a prison -- 'both are modular buildings' -- especially in the case of Oxford, which although at one time sat on an outlying site, now finds itself in the centre of a city that has grown up around it.

Långholmen Hotel in Stockholm, converted from the old Kronohaktet prison
Långholmen Hotel in Stockholm, converted from the old Kronohaktet prison

The current rash of UK prison sales, brought about by 'a determination to drive down the cost of running our prisons', according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, could be curbed by the non-negotiable rulings of English Heritage (EH) and other planning bodies. EH has set up a project to assess what it knows about each of the closed prisons, involving a review of prison listings, identifying all the structures within each site warranting protection.

Allan Brodie, senior investigator at EH says, 'This will allow the Ministry of Justice and potential developers greater clarity about the key elements of the historic environment that should be considered for retention, but it will also clarify what could be lost to facilitate future reuse of the site. Key historic Georgian and Victorian structures should grace any future developments, but later blocks of workshops, services and accommodation could be removed, having at least been recorded for posterity.'

The MoJ in turn has pledged to work, 'to ensure that the heritage of former prisons is properly recognised and protected when considering the future use of any site'. Christ Church University has, for example, been told that it cannot think about changing the Grade II-listed stone gateway to the entrance of HMP Canterbury inscribed with the words 'County Gaol and House of Correction'. The prison sits within a conservation area and features the original prison wall that must also be kept in place.

However, the main interest for the university is the proximity of the 1806 prison, which it acquired this spring, to its campus on the outskirts of Broadstairs. Brodie says, 'There may be scope for some kind of modest museum on a site to celebrate its history, but the reality is that most prisons will be the subject of mixed use development, especially those in central locations where housing, shops and small business spaces might be at a premium.'

Obviously, the small square footage of old prison cells renders internal reorganisation unavoidable, in order to welcome paying guests. In Oxford, it took two cells to create one hotel room, with a third for the en-suite bathroom, while at Långholmen in Stockholm, single en-suite rooms were created from one-and-a-half cells, and doubles from two-and-a-half. At the Liberty, however, the cell design of the old Charles Street jail made reuse impossible: 'The cells were built facing on to a catwalk, with four-storey windows on the other side -- none of them was on an exterior wall,' explains architect Gary Johnson. 'They were great for the prisoners in terms of fresh air and light, but were only 2.5m by 3m.'

His company, Cambridge Seven Associates, took down the cell block, inserted new floors and created just 18 rooms in the old prison, with a further 280 in an adjacent tower. None of the rooms carries an incarceration theme: 'We didn't want to make light or whimsy of the jail references,' says Johnson -- but the exposed brick was kept in the public area, and a gallery with glass balustrades was recreated to give visitors a sense of prison architecture. Cell doors and cell block walls have been salvaged for use in different parts of the building, but its true heritage is acknowledged in a permanent exhibition on the hotel's walls.

As with Oxford, the Liberty in Boston has benefitted from city redevelopment, which long ago made Charles Street an unexpectedly central and desirable address. 'When built in 1850, it was on the mud flats of the Charles River, surrounded by smelly butchers and tanneries,' says Johnson, 'but the area was gentrified in the early 1900s, and since its reclamation, what is now the Back Bay is full of gorgeous buildings.'

Single en-suite rooms were created from one-and-a-half cells
Single en-suite rooms were created from one-and-a-half cells

Johnson admits he and his client, developer Richard Friedman of Carpenter & Co, were inspired by the conversion of an old Istanbul jail into a Four Seasons hotel: 'It's considered a stellar example of the genre. Before that, people were sceptical that you could take a jail and turn it into a place people would want to visit, and do it well,' he adds. The partnership had to negotiate with their neighbour, Massachussetts General Hospital, who had acquired the building from the city when it was condemned as unfit for prisoners, but eventually opted not to develop it (though they do now occupy a tiny portion of the original jail).

There has been no attempt to disguise the origins of Ljubljana's Hostel Celica, which opened for business in 2003 -- rooms are housed in the original cells, which still have bars on the door. Designer wallpaper makes them surprisingly cheery, though, and pale wood for the platform beds helps reflect maximum light. 'Guests seem to be intrigued by the idea of sleeping surrounded by so much history and meaning,' says project manager Tanja Lipovec.

The conversion, supported by both the city and the university's student organisation, ended 12 unhappy years for the site since its use as a barracks for the Yugoslav army ended in 1991, when Slovenia gained independence. After much fruitless bickering over the site, the empty building was occupied by squatters until the city turned off the water and electricity to force them out. Eventually a group of artists led by architect Janko Rožic realised the hostel conversion over the course of a decade. The Celica now sits in Ljubljana's 'alternative' quarter, close to clubs, bars and performance venues.

Unusually, Langholmen in Stockholm, a 1989 conversion of the old Kronohaktet prison by the city, which still owns the building, is a combination of hostel, hotel, museum and conference centre. 'One of the main goals was to attract a large variety of clientele all year round, and the hostel helps maintain income during the tourist season when conference business is slow,' explains manager Ola Nyman.

'Actually the same people who first come as youth hostel guests often turn up years later as conference delegates.' The hostel is housed in the old ground-floor section, with original windows but no en-suite facilities. It shares a corridor with the prison museum (open daily), with one original cell furnished as it was back in the day. The original exercise yards have been preserved, the only ones of their period left in Sweden, but during the summer the outdoor area serves as a cafe.

Is the tricky and sometimes controversial nature of this kind of project worth it? Andrew Moss of GVA Grimley, who is handling the sales of the northern prisons at the firm's Birmingham office, believes the Malmaison gamble was only made possible because the land in Oxford changed hands for just L1. 'With the greatest respect to these towns [Shrewsbury, Wellingborough, Gloucester], they are not Oxford,' he says.

'In this case, the Ministry of Justice is just after as much cash as possible from the disposals, and the sites do not have the tourist draw Oxford enjoys.' Gary Johnson, who lectures all over the world about the Liberty project, is unequivocal: 'To take a place designed to be sorrowful and turn it into somewhere joyful is incredibly satisfying. But to anyone who has the same idea, I would warn -- it is very expensive.'





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