See inside the North East's oldest prison marking its 200th year today as we uncover its long and gruesome past
One of the North East’s oldest institutions has reached a significant milestone.
Myra Hindley, Ian Brady, Rose West and Mary Ann Cotton … they have all been among its many ‘residents’.
Durham Prison is 200 years old today and there have been massive changes since the days it was a high security Category A jail. Our reporter Chris Cordner was granted a behind-the-scenes opportunity to pay a visit.
The outcome was an eye-opening insight into a regime which few people really get to know.
It houses 965 remand prisoners aged 18 upwards. They come from Berwick to Northallerton, across to Whitehaven and all parts of the North East including Wearside and County Durham.
It is a category B jail in today’s world with 90% of inmates on remand, but that masks 200 years of history.
Who knew for example that:
- The spot where hangings took place still stands outside the prison;
- Executions were held in public with the privileged people of Durham turning up in their droves. Head of Residence and Safety Chris Carson explained: “The prisoner would step out of the door and on to the gantry. The rich would pay to come and watch it.”
- Once the prisoner was dead, the rope they were hanged with would be cut up into six-inch mementos and sold to the watching public. It is believed that this is where the saying ‘money for old rope’ came from;
- There were 95 executions between 1869 and 1958 on the gallows;
- Durham actually had a prison from the 1400s or perhaps even earlier. And even the cathedral served as a jail at one time when Scottish prisoners of war would be kept there.
But Durham Jail itself was ready by August 1819, ten years after building work started. Soon after, 600 cells were in use.
Now, in modern-day Britain, it has been downgraded to an all-male category B reception prison which can have a turnover of up to 540 people a month.
The facilities are enormous.
There are seven wings, a segregation unit, exercise yards for each wing, a gym, chapel and education buildings.
Inmates are looked after from the moment they arrive.
There’s a first night centre for new arrivals called E wing. There’s peer mentors to help them (that’s prisoners who have been there and done it all before).
And once they settle in, inmates get help with issues such as debt, drugs and alcohol misuse.
There’s access to part-time education where inmates can learn bricklaying, painting and decorating, or gardening.
“We create a plan for them and they get to see that the staff are here to help them,” said Chris Carson.
“Our priority is to get them safe and assess them. If we can resolve their issues by the time they go back out, it means they are not re-offending.
“A lot of prisoners keep coming back because their lives are chaotic. We try to work with them and make a difference.”
Our tour of HMP Durham took us to a model cell on E wing. It’s small and contains a bunk bed, television, and table.
Chris, meanwhile, gets a chance to describe the regime facing a prisoner each day.
They get up at about 8am, and can go to work, education or chapel after that, before their lunchtime.
Work or association (recreation) follows on the afternoon before they face a return to their cells for the night at 6pm.
In the nearby chapel, there’s a haven of peace and quiet. It’s a place where bible groups, meetings, and services for numerous faiths are held. They are well attended with upwards of 50 people at each service.
“It’s a lot different to anywhere else in the prison,” said Chris. “It is so quiet.”
And as a rule, it’s a general scene of calm across the whole site, as Chris explained.
“We get a lot of older prisoners and they go about their business. They are people who have been there and just want to get on with their day.”
In amongst that regime are peer mentors. That’s prisoners who have seen it all before and want to help newcomers to get on the best they can.
One, who can not be identified, said life inside is not what people imagine it to be – and the public thinks it knows all about it because of what they’ve seen on television.
“It’s totally different,” he said. “The relationship with the staff is a lot better here.”
For Chris, it’s been a 21-year career – so far – with the prison service and he admits: “I have always found that talking to people is the best way forward.
“It is about trying to find that common ground between being friendly but not friends.
“It is about giving them hope to go back out and live a normal life.”
And when asked what gives him most satisfaction, he tells us: “It is different every day. It is about thinking we’ve had an impact.”
And while some prisoners don’t want to learn from the helping hand being offered to them, Chris added: “There comes a time in their life when they want to, and we keep that offer open.”