HM Prison Parkhurst
Perched on the pastoral Isle of Wight, HM Prison Parkhurst hardly seems the site of one of the United Kingdom’s most notorious and feared correctional institutions. With a long and storied history dating back to the 18th century, Parkhurst has incarcerated some of Britain’s most violent and dangerous criminals within its imposing walls. From its harsh treatment of child prisoners in the 19th century, to the tumultuous tenure of the infamous Kray twins in the 1950s and 60s, Parkhurst has been the unwilling home to many of the UK’s most high-profile convicts.
Early Years as a Hospital and Asylum
Parkhurst began its life in 1778 as a military hospital for soldiers of the Crown. In subsequent years, as conflicts wound down, the sprawling complex transitioned to an asylum for the children of impoverished families. By repurposing itself as a charitable institution focused on children, Parkhurst avoided falling into complete irrelevance and abandonment in the peaceful years following the Napoleonic Wars.
Transition to a Prison for Children
This focus on vulnerable youth was drastically altered in 1838, when Parkhurst officially became a prison for children. Parkhurst apprentices, as the imprisoned children were known, now found themselves in fetid, overcrowded cells. They were issued rough uniforms and placed under harsh disciplinary regimens involving corporal punishment and endless hours of physical labor. Reformers decried the mistreatment and brutality experienced by the imprisoned children.
Parkhurst Apprentices Sent to the Colonies
In the mid-19th century, Parkhurst became a holding facility for child convicts bound for penal transportation in the colonies. Between 1842-1849, over 1,500 teenage boys passed through Parkhurst’s gates on their way to detention in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. The apprentices faced bleak futures involving backbreaking work on public works projects or assignment to manual labor for local residents.
Criticism and Calls for Reform
As reports of abuses leaked back to Britain, an outraged public and reform-minded critics demanded investigations and reform. Most prominent among these activists was Mary Carpenter, who crusaded relentlessly to end the imprisonment of children in adult facilities like Parkhurst. She condemned the Parkhurst system as an archaic institution built upon brutality and slave labor. Thanks to Carpenter’s efforts, the imprisonment of children declined in the late 1800s. However, adult prisoners soon took their place.
Category B Adult Prison
With the passage of time, Parkhurst transitioned to incarcerating adult prisoners convicted of serious crimes. The population became increasingly violent and unstable. This prompted upgrades to security infrastructure and protocols. By 1966, Parkhurst attained top security “Dispersal” status. This concentration of dangerous inmates fueled its reputation for volatility and disorder. Prisoner protests, attacks, and suicides plagued the institution during the 1960s and 70s.
As Britain’s “end-of-the-line” prison, Parkhurst became home to many of the nation’s most infamous criminals and radicals. Some of the facility’s notorious guests included:
- The Kray Twins: Ronnie and Reggie Kray, notorious gang leaders active in the London underworld in the 50s and 60s. The brothers were involved in armed robbery, arson, and multiple murders.
- The Yorkshire Ripper: Serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, who murdered 13 women between 1975-1980. He spent 32 years in Parkhurst.
- Ian Brady: Moors murderer Brady was jailed in Parkhurst for his role in the child killings between 1963-1965.
1995 Escape Attempt
Parkhurst’s security was profoundly embarrassed by a brazen escape attempt in January 1995. Armed robber Keith Rose and two other prisoners managed to slip outside the massive concrete walls. Once free, they holed up in a nearby shed for 4 days before recapture. The incident proved Parkhurst’s security protocols had dangerous gaps that needed filling.
Death of Irish Republican Michael Gaughan
In 1974, Irish Republican Army militant Michael Gaughan died at Parkhurst after a brutal 64 day hunger strike he initiated to demand prisoner of war status. Force-feeding of hunger strikers was standard practice. But the starvation protests highlighted criticisms of the prison’s treatment of political prisoners.
Parkhurst Joins Albany as HMP Isle of Wight
In 2009, UK prison authorities took steps to consolidate staff and resources on the Isle of Wight. They merged Parkhurst with nearby Albany Prison to form HMP Isle of Wight. Some feared this larger complex would breed more violence and gang activity. However, most operations continued unchanged, with the two prisons retaining their former names and inmate populations.
Continued Operation as Category B Prison
After its demotion from “Dispersal” status in 1995, Parkhurst continued on as a Category B prison for convicts who do not require maximum security, but are still considered dangerous. While someCell blocks were repurposed for lower-risk prisoners, Parkhurst still operates at a security level appropriate for its legacy population of violent offenders serving long sentences for grievous crimes.
Notable Recent and Current Inmates
In recent decades, Parkhurst has continued to garner notoriety for housing infamous criminals like:
- Harold Shipman: Dr. Death, who may have killed 250+ patients before his 2004 suicide in Parkhurst.
- Ian Huntley: School caretaker who murdered two 10-year-old girls at a village school in 2002.
- Charles Bronson: Dubbed Britain’s “most violent prisoner” for attacking inmates and guards.
- Radovan Karadžić: Bosnian Serb leader jailed for war crimes during the Bosnian War of the 1990s.
Impacts and Legacy of Parkhurst
For both prisoners and reformers, Parkhurst remains notorious for its harsh conditions and draconian 19th century practices. The deaths of convicts like Michael Gaughan still spur accusations of inmate mistreatment. Parkhurst’s very name conjures images of child laborers toiling under merciless conditions. Regardless of attempts at improvements, the prison remains a monument to painful chapters of British penal history.
Parkhurst in Pop Culture
As one of Britain’s most storied prisons, Parkhurst has infiltrated pop culture through books, movies and TV shows leveraging its macabre past. For example:
- The 2009 TV drama Parkhurst focuses on infamous inmates like the Krays and Yorkshire Ripper.
- Parkhurst provides a backdrop to Ian Brady in the 2017 biopic My Friend the Moors Murderer.
- The institution appears in the book Parkhurst Tales: Behind the Locked Gates.
- Indie rockers The Libertines recorded parts of their album in Parkhurst after requesting access.
The Future of Parkhurst
In future years, Parkhurst may continue to shift its operations and security arrangements to align with modern prison management practices. Some possible changes include:
- Conversion to a Category C facility for minimum security inmates as the original Victorian infrastructure ages.
- Eventual closure as smaller, more modern prisons take up the burden of housing prisoners.
- Repurposing of cell blocks and grounds for non-correctional uses should inmate populations decline.
For now, Parkhurst remains one of six prisons on the Isle of Wight, subject to budget allocations and policy from Her Majesty’s Prison Service.
HM Prison Parkhurst has origins dating back centuries as a hospital, asylum, and one of the world’s first child prisons. For generations, its name has been synonymous with overcrowded cells, harsh discipline, and backbreaking child labor. As an adult prison, it hosted volatile, dangerous inmates like the Kray Twins, turning it into one of Britain’s most feared penal institutions. Parkhurst retains its notoriety in the modern era through high-profile prisoners and references in pop culture. Going forward,Parkhurst’s future operations remain uncertain as decisionmakers balance preservation of its historic identity with calls for modernization.
What was Parkhurst originally built for?
Parkhurst was originally built in 1778 as a military hospital for British soldiers. It later transitioned to an asylum for impoverished children before becoming a prison.
How many teenage boys were sent abroad from Parkhurst?
In the mid-19th century, over 1,500 teenage boys deemed apprentices were sent from Parkhurst to penal colonies in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and other British territories.
Who was Parkhurst’s most famous prisoner?
Some of Parkhurst’s most notorious prisoners were the violent Kray Twins gang leaders, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper), and Moors murderer Ian Brady.
When did Parkhurst become a top security prison?
In 1966 Parkhurst attained “Dispersal” status as one of Britain’s top security prisons reserved for the most dangerous inmates like the Krays and Sutcliffe.
What happened during the 1995 Parkhurst escape?
In 1995, prisoners Keith Rose, a murderer, and two others broke out of Parkhurst for four days before being recaptured in a major security breach.