HM Prison Ashwell

For over 50 years, HM Prison Ashwell occupied a notorious and controversial place in the British prison system. Located in the countryside of Rutland, this category C men’s prison housed hundreds of inmates at its peak before being permanently shuttered in 2011. The history of Ashwell traced the trajectory of many modern UK prisons—beginning with high hopes for rehabilitation and training, but plagued by overcrowding, security issues, and inmate violence. Its dramatic closure and redevelopment stand as a symbol of the changing philosophies around corrections and criminal justice in contemporary Britain.

History and Background

Opening and Early Years as an Open Prison

Constructed on the grounds of a former US military base, HM Prison Ashwell first opened its doors in 1955. The initial purpose was to operate as an “open” prison, with minimal security measures and relative freedom for inmates to demonstrate good behavior. Like other open prisons of the era, Ashwell focused on rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them to re-enter society.

In the beginning, inmates lived in dormitories instead of locked cells. They were able to undertake paid work and educational programs outside of the prison grounds. However, this liberal environment was short-lived.

Conversion to Category C Prison

In 1987, citing security concerns, the management converted Ashwell from an open to a closed prison with heightened security measures. It began housing Category C prisoners—inmates classified as unlikely to make escape attempts or pose disciplinary challenges.

This key shift marked the start of a more restrictive and volatile period in Ashwell’s history. “Open” policies gave way to the crowded, tense atmosphere that would come to dominate the prison’s latter decades.

See also  HM Prison Dovegate

Notable Events and Issues

Although intended for compliant prisoners, Ashwell struggled with maintaining order and control throughout its history as a Category C facility. There were rampant issues with overcrowding, illegal alcohol, organized gang activity, and violence.

One particularly bad episode occurred in 2003, when four inmates went on a destructive rampage, causing £10,000 in property damage after being caught drinking alcohol. Significant unrest, including fights and attacks on staff and other prisoners, occurred frequently.

Expansion and Increased Capacity

Seeking to alleviate the tensions associated with overcrowding, the Prison Service invested £6 million in facility upgrades in 2008. A new cell block added 64 beds, increasing Ashwell’s overall capacity to 619.

But this measure ultimately backfired. While more space reduced crowding, the larger inmate population only escalated the existing problems with violence and lack of control.

The 2009 Riot and Damage

This volatile combination came to a head on April 11, 2009, when a major riot broke out at Ashwell. Lasting nearly 24 hours, the riot caused extensive damage, injuring prisoners and rendering 75% of the prison uninhabitable.

The chaos began when a prisoner refused to return to his cell and quickly spiraled out of control. Up to 400 inmates ultimately participated, setting fires, destroying equipment, and smashing windows. A massive police presence was required to finally quell the riot.

Closure and Redevelopment

In the wake of this disaster, HM Prison Ashwell never recovered. With repair costs far exceeding the aging facility’s value, the government closed it permanently in 2011. All remaining prisoners were transferred elsewhere.

After sitting idle for two years, Ashwell was sold to Rutland County Council to be redeveloped. The most damaged areas were demolished, and new buildings constructed. Today, it operates as Oakham Enterprise Park – a modern business complex.

Facilities and Operations

Prisoner Categories and Capacity

For most of its operating history, Ashwell housed adult male prisoners classified as Category C. These inmates were considered unlikely to pose a serious threat while incarcerated.

See also  HM Prison Wakefield

At its peak capacity in 2009, the prison held up to 619 prisoners. They were a mix of inmates serving short sentences for minor crimes, and longer-term prisoners nearing the ends of their sentences.

Education and Work Programs

Like all prisons, Ashwell offered education classes, vocational training, and work assignments to occupy inmates’ time. Prisoners could learn trades like welding, carpentry, and farming. They could also pursue academic credentials like GEDs.

Many inmates spent their days doing paid work, manufacturing goods or performing services like laundry and groundskeeping to keep the prison running. However, disruptive behavior often undermined these rehabilitative programs.

Staff and Security

At capacity, the prison employed over 200 staff in security, administration, and offender management roles. The security team included officers stationed in the cell blocks, manning control booths, patrolling grounds, and operating the front gate.

Perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, movement restrictions, and searches were all utilized to maintain order – though clearly with mixed results given the facility’s problems. Staffing shortages due to budget cuts likely contributed to the unchecked violence and chaos.

Notable Inmates

Lee Hughes

One infamous prisoner to spend time at Ashwell was professional footballer Lee Hughes. Hughes served half of a 6-year sentence at the prison from 2004 to 2007 following a conviction for death by dangerous driving.

While incarcerated, Hughes managed and played on the facility’s inmate football team. He later returned to professional football after being paroled from Ashwell.

Other Notable Prisoners

In addition to Hughes, Ashwell housed inmates from various backgrounds over the years – from convicted murderers to white collar criminals.

Other well-known prisoners included notorious English criminals Charles Bronson and Michael Peterson, and Viscount William Waldorf Astor, an aristocrat jailed for fraud. Despite its remote location, Ashwell held occupants reflecting the full spectrum.

Impact and Legacy

Role in the Prison System

For over 50 years, HM Prison Ashwell played an important role within the British prison network. At its peak, it housed several hundred inmates, easing overcrowding pressures at more urban facilities.

See also  HM Prison Bullingdon

However, its constant overcapacity issues also exemplified the greater strain on resources across the entire system. Ashwell became notorious for its dangerous, unmanageable conditions – vividly illustrating the need for comprehensive reforms.

Redevelopment of the Site

When Ashwell closed, the redevelopment of the prison grounds represented a new chapter. Turning the troubled facility into a successful business park symbolized transitioning from failure to renewal.

Oakham Enterprise Park has breathed new economic life into the rural community. But remnants of the high fences and security architecture remain onsite, reminding visitors of Ashwell’s history.

Lessons Learned

The tribulations of HM Prison Ashwell provide valuable case studies in operational challenges and reform efforts as the UK prison system continues evolving.

Its inability to safely house inmates in adequate conditions reinforces that “tough on crime” policies must be balanced with rehabilitation and common sense. Ashwell leaves a legacy cautioning against overcrowded, understaffed prisons deteriorating into violence.


The rise and fall of HM Prison Ashwell followed an arc seen at many prisons worldwide. An initial open environment gave way to severe overcrowding, unrest, and neglect. For a period it expanded, but without the resources or vision to manage increased responsibilities. The 2009 riot represented a final breaking point, leading to the facility’s shuttering.

Ashwell’s history provides perspective on the nuances of balancing security, punishment, rehabilitation, and budgetary constraints in corrections systems. With its demise, British prisons lost one of their most notorious and challenging institutions. The lessons it leaves behind continue shaping policies and standards across the country’s penal system.


Q: When did HM Prison Ashwell first open?

A: Ashwell opened in 1955 as an open prison. It transitioned to a closed, Category C prison in 1987.

Q: What security category of prisoners were housed at Ashwell?

A: Ashwell housed adult male prisoners classified as Category C – considered unlikely to pose security threats if incarcerated.

Q: How many inmates could the prison hold at its peak capacity?

A: After expansion in 2008, Ashwell grew to hold a maximum of 619 prisoners by adding 64 beds.

Q: What significant event contributed to Ashwell’s closure in 2011?

A: A major riot broke out in 2009, causing extensive damage and rendering 75% of the prison structurally unsound and uninhabitable.

Q: What is the former site of HM Prison Ashwell used for today?

A: After the prison closed, the site was redeveloped into Oakham Enterprise Park – a business park for commercial offices and industry.

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