Fancy a weekend break in prison? Shrewsbury Prison is the place to get locked up behind bars if you’re excited by the idea of spending time inside the clink.
Shrewsbury’s latest tourist attraction, the Dana Prison Jailhouse, runs special visits, overnight stays and jailbreak events. You can even try to escape over the intimidating prison walls, but you’ll need a fast getaway car at the ready!
Welcome to the ultimate immersive prison experience, but what makes this most chilling is that the Dana Jail closed just three years ago.
Inside the Prison Gates
If you’ve ever been to Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, you’ll know how creepy a real jail can be, especially if it’s disused. There’s no denying that a trip to Shrewsbury Prison is every bit as scary.
A couple of hours spent at the Dana Prison is enough to put anyone off prison and deter them from becoming an offender – so why visit?
First, it’s a historic trip back in time. Shrewsbury Jail dates back to 1791 – its Georgian foundations lie underneath the current Dana Prison which was rebuilt in 1868.
But its unique selling point is that this is the ultimate immersive tourist experience, especially if you book one of the overnight prison tours.
If you’re scared at the idea of spending the night in prison, why not take the self-guided tour which provides an easier introduction to prison life.
Entering the prison gates, the barred metal doors slam shut heavily as you step inside for the tour. The giant ‘clunking’ sound is a reminder that this wasn’t a fun immersive experience in the prison’s heyday.
Fortunately for today’s visitors, new ‘inmates’ are only stripped of their possessions, money and phones at the prison gate if they’ve booked the overnight prisoner experience tour.
What I found most terrifying is that the Dana Prison has been left almost exactly as it was in 2013 with little attempt to sanitise it or create a Disney style themed attraction.
The experience is chilling but fascinating at the same time. This is a ‘ghost prison’, complete with the remnants of the real jail, and the spectres of its former inmates loom large.
Once inside, there’s a trip to the administration block to check into the jail, like any new inmate. All prisoners entering or leaving the prison would have been taken into the reception area which looks pretty much as it did when the prison was open.
One of the most chilling exhibits is the ‘body check’ chair’ where prisoners would have been searched for drugs and hidden contraband (pictured above). Thankfully, nobody was on hand to do a ‘strip and search’ on me!
There are the endless rooms where prisoners were checked for health, psychological and social issues before being placed in a ‘holding area’ ready to be transferred to a cell in the prison’s wings.
It’s a sobering experience.
Prison on Cell Block ‘A’
The Dana Prison was originally built to hold 171 prisoners, with one inmate per cell, but by the end of its life, there were 450 prisoners incarcerated here.
It was known as one of the most overcrowded prisons in Britain, so the decision to close it in 2013 was perhaps inevitable.
One of the guides, a former prison officer, told me that the noise would have been deafening in ‘A’ block during its peak, with the men shouting, hitting the metal rails, and bellowing at guards.
Today, the jailhouse is strangely silent. There is an eerie echo as visitors clank around its empty corridors and go inside the uninhabited cells and detention rooms.
Walking into ‘A Wing’ provides visitors with an insight into daily prison life – you can still see the central staircases, the long corridors, and the tiny cells, which are really grim.
Walking up and down the stairs is a weird experience as they were designed with uneven surfaces to make it hard for prisoners to walk or run smoothly.
A maze of small rooms include the ‘intervention suite’ for prisoners at risk of self-harm, the showers where the men would have ‘slopped out’, and the food servery.
Cell 5 is especially scary . It was here that prisoners were held if they’d made a serious suicide attempt or were at imminent risk. An officer would have watched them 24 hours a day.
Equally intimidating are the segregation rooms or ‘seg cells’ where prisoners were placed for breaking the rules. The most violent ones would have their clothes removed before being given a zoot suit.
Prisoners would be placed in segregation for up to an hour until they cooled down and were moved to a general ‘seg cell’. You can imagine the aggression and anger that would have spewed out of a prisoner held in one of these cells.
Back inside the normal cells, prison life was far from a bed of roses – there were few mod cons and the rooms were bare and sparsely furnished. Victorian prisons were renowned for feeling intimidating and unwelcoming.
On the plus side, Shewsbury’s prison food was praised for its high standard in a “Good Jail Guide” – and you can drop into the kitchen to discover how it operated.
At the far end of ‘A Wing’, you can visit the Healthcare Centre where prisoners collected their medications from a hatch under the supervision of two officers.
Prisoners with drug addictions would come here for detox and treatment. You wonder what life must have been like for the prisoners who came here with their drug problems.
Go inside Cell 43 and you’ll see the palliative care suite designed to provide health care for prisoners at the end of their lives.
Hardcore prison experience
Walking around the corridors, I didn’t rate my chances of prison survival in this institution. This is hardcore stuff, whether it was life in the main wing cells, the kitchen or prison yard.
The recreational areas reveal a different side to prison life – a snooker area, the outdoor yards, a chapel, the gym and sports hall, now silent but once a hub of activity.
The empty sports hall is especially eerie whilst the chapel has a strange atmosphere like a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.
Outside, the exercise yard is now empty but once provided a glimpse of blue skies beyond the prison walls. It reminded me of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ with its confined space and menacing atmosphere.
Prisoners were prevented from escaping by high fencing with netting across the top to stop anyone throwing objects over the walls. I wouldn’t fancy my chances of scaling the walls in an escape bid from here.
This was where exercise took place daily for an hour at 19:30. Prisoners weren’t allowed to take hot drinks outside in case they used them as weapons.
There were several famous inmates over the years. Back in 1973, actor Ricky Tomlinson was incarcerated in the prison after being sentenced controversially to two years for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ when he took part in a strike picket. Fortunately, he never returned and went on to better things… and has since tried to clear his name.
The infamous British armed robber and murderer Donald Neilson, ‘The Black Panther’, spent time in the prison during a transfer.
Other famous inmates include one of the great train robbers, Robert Welch, who was incarcerated in Shrewsbury in 1964 after being given a 30-year sentence.
Maze of rooms
After wandering around the prison for more than an hour, I was starting to get lost in its maze of rooms. It becomes disorientating once you leave the rigid grid pattern of the cell blocks.
During your self-guided tour, you’ll see the visitor suite where prisoners could meet with their nearest and dearest.
Prisoners were allowed 2-4 visits every month, dependent on good behaviour. Visits lasted up to two hours, with strict searches of visitors by staff and a drugs sniffer dog to prevent any exchange of illegal substances.
Looking through the perspex panels, there’s an uncomfortable feeling of what the reality of being in prison was like for visitors and inmates.
At the rear of the prison, there are the unmarked graves of those executed at the Dana, a grim reminder of its long history of capital punishment. Ten bodies were taken away in the 1970s when the sports hall and chapel were built.
Anyone trying to escape from here must have had a tough time. If you venture into the outside yards, you’ll be shocked by the tall, formidable prison walls and the grim Victorian exterior.
Back inside, look out for the prison cells with green bars – known as E-Man cells where prisoners at high risk of escape were placed.
Although grim at times, the tour provides a fascinating look at prison life. This isn’t just about a voyeuristic taste for the macabre, it’s about seeing something truly unique in the UK.
The Dana Prison provides a great insight into the criminal justice system and allows us to see inside a prison at first hand.
Visiting the prison workshops is one of the more unusual experiences at the Dana, perhaps because this was the place where the prisoners were supposed to be rehabilitated and learn new skills.
It was here that I discovered the origin of the term ‘prison screw’ as a nickname for the guards. The word ‘screw’ comes from the days when prisoners were forced to worked on treadmills when officers would tighten the screw to make the wheel harder to turn.
In a weird way, the whole experience is incredibly moving, especially when you discover the stories of the inmates, their families and victims.
But I didn’t like to ask where the strange, large red stain on the workshop floors came from.
Inside the Hang Room
Next stop on the tour is ‘C Wing’ which was used as a vulnerable prisoners wing at Shrewsbury, holding 43 prisoners. It was originally built to house female prisoners.
It is known as the ‘haunted wing’ due to strange sightings of a woman coming out of cell 203, walking through the green door at the end of the landing towards the Hanging Room.
But it’s the Hang Room that provides the most haunting experience on the whole prison tour, even silencing the worst behaved children who step inside.
Back in 1868, public hangings were carried out outside the main prison gate, a grim spectator sport which took place with the Governor, County Sheriff, Executioner, Doctor and Chaplin in attendance.
Prisoners would be left to hang from the rope for a mandatory one hour before they were taken down. Then, an autopsy was carried out to confirm the cause of death.
Today, the idea of public executions seems shocking. The last public hanging was Edward Cooper in 1863 who had been found guilty of murdering his son. The local newspaper at the time reported that the hanging was popular with crowds “perched as thickly as crows in a densely populated rookery”.
Hangings continued within the prison with the final hanging being George Riley in 1961. The trainee butcher was found guilty of the murder of a 62-year-old widow, who lived opposite his family. He was executed, despite the efforts of his family and MPs to secure a reprieve.
A solitary rope hangs from the Hang Room ceiling.
There are chilling stories of the real life murderers who hanged in this very room around the walls – it’s a sobering thought that the death penalty wasn’t abolished in the UK until 1965.
Many of the hangings here were carried out in the 1950s by Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last hangman. Whatever your views on hanging, it is a strange and disturbing place to visit.
Despite the prison’s tough reputation, a guide and former prison officer told me that some of the ex-prisoners had popped in for a tour of the Dana with their families, including one who was released in 2012 after serving a 16 year sentence.
It’s weird to believe that anyone would want to return to this grim prison. But there’s no doubt that this is a fascinating place to visit.
But hurry up if you’re planning to go inside The Dana. It is also facing a death sentence. There are plans to convert the site into housing and offices next year.
It’s a great shame because this is a truly different tourist experience, the like of which we may never see again.
Without doubt, this is the ultimate immersive prison experience… and a trip is strongly recommended before the Dana shuts its doors for the last time.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Shrewsbury’s Dana Prison
The Dana Prison is located in Shrewsbury in Shropshire in the West Midlands – the jail is close to the town’s main railway station.
You can explore the Dana Prison on a self-guided tour at your own pace – simply turn up and pay on the day. Admission costs £15 per person. It’s open from 12:00 – 18:00 daily.
The Dana Prison offers the only opportunity to experience a prison officer’s life at night in the world. Don’t miss ‘Dana in the Dark’, if you enjoy immersive experiences.
You’ll be given the job of overnight prison warden on ‘A Wing’ – your challenge is to control your block with regular cell checks, suicide watches, answering alarm bells and watching the prisoners.
On ‘C’ Wing, you can sign up for the ‘catch the con’ game in which one of the jail’s most notorious prisoners escapes from his cell. Working as a team with other ‘prison officers’, you’ll search buildings, complete perimeter checks and ensure the safe recapture of the escaped convict!
Look out for the full schedule of history events, zombie nights, ghost tours and prison sleepovers on the Dana Prison Facebook page
The Dana also boasts the world’s only ‘Prison Break Escape’ from a real life working prison – more details can be found on the Immersive Events website.
‘Prisoners’ give up their possessions at the gate, and get changed into prison clothes. Once banged-up in their cells, they have the day to attempt to escape. If successful, they have to navigate around the prison site, avoiding officers and any prisoners who might ‘grass them up’.
Alternatively, how about an overnight stay? The 11 hour night stay gives you a feeling of isolation in your very own cell, or you can share the experience with your friends.
There’s also a ‘Night Walk’ where you embark on an eerie tour with a Prison Officer to experience the jailhouse as it is in the middle of the night. It sounds terrifying but promises to be great immersive fun.