hm prison canterbury

HM Prison Canterbury

HM Prison Canterbury, known simply as HMP Canterbury, was a controversial prison located in Canterbury, Kent that operated for over 200 years before its closure in 2013. This infamous institution has a long and winding history reflecting the changing nature of British penal policy and public attitudes towards incarceration.

The Early Years of HMP Canterbury

HMP Canterbury first opened its doors in 1808 as a county gaol. At the time, prisons were managed locally and used to hold prisoners awaiting trial, debtors, and those serving short sentences.

Conditions would have been primitive – cold, overcrowded cells, poor sanitation, and meagre food. Like all prisons of this era, its main aim was confinement rather than reform.

During World War I, HMP Canterbury was used temporarily as a Home Office archive centre. However, it resumed operations as a civilian prison after the war ended.

Transformations: WWII and Postwar Period

HMP Canterbury underwent major changes in the 20th century.

In the lead-up to World War II, it was converted into a Naval Detention Centre – essentially a military prison. It held naval detainees and wartime conscientious objectors.

After the war in 1946, HMP Canterbury reverted to a local prison function. It was an old-fashioned Victorian-era facility at a time when policymakers were exploring more progressive penal reforms.

Overcrowding and poor facilities were constant issues. Yet HMP Canterbury continued to serve the Kent courts by housing remand prisoners and short-sentence offenders.

See also  Belle Vue Gaol

New Challenges: Prison Overcrowding and Suicide

HMP Canterbury faced escalating problems from the 1990s onwards. Along with other UK prisons, it suffered from severe overcrowding – in 2003 it was 57% over capacity.

There were surging inmate numbers, lack of investment in new facilities and limited staff. This resulted in tension and violence.

The prison also gained notoriety for its high number of inmate suicides. Campaigners criticised the lack of mental health support and crumbling infrastructure.

Final Years as a Foreign National Prison

In 2007, HMP Canterbury was re-roled as a foreign national prison holding non-British offenders. The goal was to centralise services for foreign inmates such as immigration and language support.

However, problems persisted – old facilities, inmate drug use, and management difficulties continued to plague the prison.

Closure and Repurposing

After 200 years of operation, HMP Canterbury finally closed its doors for good in March 2013. Its closure was part of a wider restructuring of prisons.

The Ministry of Justice intended to sell the vacant site. In 2014, ownership transferred to Canterbury Christ Church University for a new student accommodation complex.

The Complex Legacy of HMP Canterbury

So what is the legacy of HMP Canterbury? For many, it was an outdated facility that failed to rehabilitate prisoners. Critics saw it as emblematic of an ineffective penal system in need of reform.

However, we must view it in its historical context – it reflected changing attitudes to incarceration and punishment over two centuries.

While it had its flaws, HMP Canterbury also provided steady local employment. Its closure impacted the economy and sense of identity for the community.

See also  HM Prison Haverigg

The varied history of HMP Canterbury provides lessons about the complex role prisons play in society – and the need to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Perhaps its closure can spark new approaches to achieve a humane yet effective penal system.


HMP Canterbury’s long and chequered history mirrors the evolution of British prisons and wider criminal justice policies. For over 200 years, it housed a multitude of prisoners from debtors to wartime detainees. However, its antiquated facilities were unable to cope with modern overcrowding, rehabilitation and mental health challenges.

While HMP Canterbury failed to successfully reform inmates, we must understand it in its historical context. Prisons play a complex role in balancing punishment and rehabilitation. HMP Canterbury’s closure is an opportunity to develop more progressive models of incarceration focused on restoring prisoners and cutting reoffending. The next chapter in Kent’s prison history is yet to be written.


When did HMP Canterbury first open?

HMP Canterbury opened in 1808 as a county gaol or prison.

What was the prison used for in World War I?

During World War I it temporarily served as a storage archives centre for the Home Office between 1914-1918.

Why did the prison have high suicide rates?

Campaigners criticised HMP Canterbury for its high rate of inmate suicide from the 1990s onwards. Contributing factors were overcrowding, poor facilities and lack of mental health support.

What type of prison was HMP Canterbury before it closed?

In its final years from 2007 to 2013, HMP Canterbury operated as a foreign national prison housing non-British offenders.

See also  Norman Cross Prison

Who took ownership of the prison site after its closure?

After closing in 2013, Canterbury Christ Church University acquired the vacant HMP Canterbury site in 2014 for student accommodation.

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