HM Prison Leicester
Tucked away in the heart of Leicester stands a formidable Victorian structure with high brick walls and a castle-like gatehouse. To the outsider, it may seem like an imposing relic of the city’s medieval past. But this is in fact HM Prison Leicester, one of England’s oldest operational penitentiaries. For over 190 years, HM Prison Leicester has confined some of society’s most notorious criminals within its aging walls. Despite its long history, the struggles of this aging prison continue to make headlines today.
History of HM Prison Leicester
Origins and Construction
HM Prison Leicester first opened its heavy doors in 1828. The prison was constructed over three years at a cost of £20,000, under the direction of Leicestershire county surveyor William Parsons. Parsons designed the prison façade to resemble a grand castle, featuring distinctive battlements and a prominent gatehouse. HM Prison Leicester’s perimeter walls stand an estimated 30 feet high, said to be the highest of any prison in England.
In an ironic twist, the journalist William Cobbett criticized Leicester residents in the early 1800s for boasting about their new prison instead of taking pride in an absence of crime. Nevertheless, HM Prison Leicester soon became a celebrated landmark in the city. Locals nicknamed it “Welford Road Prison” or simply “Welford Road” after the street where it is located.
Early Public Executions
As one of the first prisons constructed in Leicestershire, HM Prison Leicester carried out public executions in the years following its opening. Prison gallows were erected outside the gatehouse. From 1829 to 1868, thousands gathered to witness hangings carried out before the crowds.
The last public hanging took place in 1856, when notorious murderer William “Peppermint Billy” Brown was executed before an estimated 25,000 people. The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 ended public executions at HM Prison Leicester and required all future hangings to occur inside the prison walls.
Later 19th Century Executions
Executions continued at HM Prison Leicester through the late 1800s, albeit now in private. Condemned prisoners stepped onto the gallows shielded from public view. Triple and double hangings took place on rare occasions, involving convicts who participated in the same crimes.
By the close of the century, HM Prison Leicester had carried out a total of 23 executions since opening its doors. Those executed ranged from horse thieves to murderers, and included one woman, Sarah Smith. She was hanged in 1832 for poisoning her female companion.
20th Century Executions
Eight more prisoners faced execution at HM Prison Leicester between 1903 and 1953. The last hanging took place in November 1953, when Albert Pierrepoint executed Joseph Christopher Reynolds for murder. This marked the end of executions at the prison.
Controversies and Calls for Reform
Overcrowding and Poor Conditions
While no longer an execution site, HM Prison Leicester continued to generate troubling headlines in recent decades. The prison has long faced severe overcrowding despite its relatively small size. HM Prison Leicester was designed to house around 200 inmates but has held over 400 prisoners.
Cramped, unsanitary conditions and poor facilities have long concerned inspectors and reform advocates. HM Prison Leicester earned the moniker of “suicide capital” in light of its high rate of self-inflicted deaths during the 1990s.
High Rates of Suicide
Between 1993 and 2000, HM Prison Leicester witnessed 28 suicide attempts resulting in 7 deaths. Campaigners spoke out about the lack of risk management and urged for improved mental healthcare. They also raised concerns about vulnerable inmates being held in solitary confinement cells, an outdated practice linked to psychological distress.
Critics Call for Closure
The Prison Reform Trust highlighted HM Prison Leicester in 2004 as one of England’s most overcrowded prisons. The Trust suggested that intolerable conditions provided grounds for closing HM Prison Leicester altogether rather than continuing failed attempts to expand capacity.
However, nearly 20 years later, HM Prison Leicester remains open despite calls for its closure. England’s shortage of prison space has prevented HM Prison Leicester from being decommissioned.
Life in HM Prison Leicester Today
Inmate Population and Facilities
Presently, HM Prison Leicester imprisons around 400 adult men, both those sentenced and awaiting trial. Inside its aging cell blocks, prisoners find basic integral sanitation but limited opportunities. Critics argue HM Prison Leicester lacks the facilities to provide decent standards of living and rehabilitation for prisoners.
Education and Work Opportunities
Inmates can access educational courses focused mainly on vocational subjects. Prison work revolves around cleaning, laundry, and food preparation. According to advocates, HM Prison Leicester fails to offer prisoners sufficient work experience and training to aid reentry into society.
Security and Control
As a Category B prison, HM Prison Leicester holds those not deemed highly dangerous but unable to reside in open conditions. Prison officers maintain security through close monitoring and control of inmates. Cells and wings contain CCTV cameras and intercom systems. Critics argue the controlling environment damages prisoners’ mental health.
HM Prison Leicester stands as a landmark bearing witness to centuries of criminal justice history in Leicester. Yet within its aging confines, the prison remains mired in controversies concerning overcrowding, poor conditions, and lack of inmate rehabilitation. After 190 years in operation, critics argue HM Prison Leicester has outlived its usefulness and should be closed. However, England’s ongoing shortage of prison capacity has kept its doors open. While no longer carrying out public executions, HM Prison Leicester remains under scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners within its fortress-like walls.
When did HM Prison Leicester open?
HM Prison Leicester opened in 1828.
What notable events took place at HM Prison Leicester?
HM Prison Leicester was historically a site of public executions by hanging from 1829-1868. 23 executions in total occurred there between 1829 and 1953.
Why has HM Prison Leicester been criticized in recent decades?
Critics have called out issues of overcrowding, poor conditions, lack of inmate rehabilitation and high suicide rates at the prison.
What type of inmates does HM Prison Leicester hold today?
It currently holds around 400 sentenced and remand adult male prisoners.
Has HM Prison Leicester been closed due to criticisms?
No, it remains operational today due to England’s shortage of prison space.