HM Prison Reading
HM Prison Reading, known locally as Reading Gaol, was initially built in 1844 in Reading, Berkshire. Designed by prominent architects George Gilbert Scott and William Moffatt, Reading Gaol was based on London’s Pentonville Prison. The grounds were located on the former site of Reading Abbey and next to the River Kennet.
Reading Gaol was constructed to implement the latest 19th century penal technique – the separate system. This involved keeping prisoners isolated in their cells to avoid any contamination or corruption from other inmates. The prison’s cruciform architectural shape allowed optimal surveillance of prisoners.
As the county jail, Reading Gaol’s forecourt was used for public executions up until 1868. The first hanging took place in 1845, witnessed by 10,000 people. After 1868, executions were conducted privately within the prison walls, with the last occurring in 1913.
Notable Events and Prisoners
Throughout its history, Reading Gaol held various types of inmates. It housed Irish nationalist prisoners involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and was utilized for internment during both World Wars. Most internees were of German descent, along with some Latin Americans, Belgians and Hungarians.
In the 20th century, Reading Gaol confined a number of prominent individuals. The famed author Oscar Wilde was imprisoned there from 1895-1897 for homosexual offences and later wrote the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol based on his experiences.
In 1896, serial killer Amelia Dyer was hanged at Reading Gaol, as was murderer Charles Thomas Wooldridge, whose execution inspired Wilde’s famous poem. Other notable prisoners included actor Stacy Keach, who served 6 months for cocaine smuggling in 1984, and boxer Anthony Joshua, who spent two weeks at Reading in 2009.
Conversion to Young Offenders Institution
By 1973, Reading Gaol lost its status as the county jail and had its castle perimeter wall removed. In 1992, it was re-designated as a Remand Centre and Young Offenders Institution for prisoners aged 18-21. Accommodations included single and double cells organized into three wings, along with an open low-security unit. Education programs were offered through the prison and Milton Keynes College.
Life Inside HM Prison Reading
Layout and Facilities
Reading Gaol was built to implement the “separate system”, keeping prisoners isolated in individual cells. The original cruciform design allowed optimal surveillance down each cell-lined arm from a central vantage point. Prisoners spent almost all their time in their small, spartan cells.
However, as approaches shifted, the prison did include common rooms and spaces for group activities. Each cell wing had shower and bathroom facilities that prisoners accessed on a scheduled basis. There was also a gymnasium, outdoor recreation areas, kitchen, laundry, and workshops on-site.
The Young Offenders Institution housed inmates in a combination of single and double occupancy cells across three wings – one of which was a dedicated low-security unit. Each cell contained the basic necessities – a bed, toilet, and sink. Meals were provided in a dining hall.
Daily Routine for Prisoners
A typical day for a prisoner at Reading Gaol generally followed a strict timetable of activities. They would be woken early around 7 AM for roll call and breakfast before starting work duties. Prisoners signed up for daily jobs like cleaning, laundry, and kitchen work. Others took classes or vocational programs.
Lunch was followed by scheduled time in the exercise yards or gym. Some prisoners received visits from family or legal counsel. Lockdown occurred around 5 PM for dinner, followed by leisure time in cells until lights out at 10 PM. Free time was limited, with activities like reading or watching TV. Officers patrolled throughout to maintain security and order.
Weekends and holidays had a more relaxed schedule with additional recreation. However, prisoners faced frequent cabin fever and boredom while confined. The monotonous routine and lack of mental stimulation could be mentally taxing.
Education and Rehabilitation Programs
When Reading became a Young Offenders Institution in 1992, rehabilitation and education programs expanded considerably. Mandatory classes covered basic academic subjects to improve inmates’ skills and job prospects after release. Many participated in vocational courses like construction, agriculture, and computing.
Prisoners could pursue self-directed classes and correspondence courses as well. The prison library provided learning resources and leisure books. Counseling addressed offenders’ needs and behaviors, encouraging positive change. Various workshops focused on life skills, arts, and community reintegration.
Religious services, sports, and arts activities offered constructive outlets and peer support. However, some felt the programs were inadequate for properly rehabilitating youth. Limited funding and overcrowding hampered education efforts.
Impact and Legacy
In Popular Culture
As Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment popularized, Reading Gaol became ingrained in literary history. The emotional poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol portrayed the harsh conditions and inhumane execution Wilde witnessed there. Each cell seemed to him a trap for a “caged wild beast.”
Reading is believed to have inspired other creative works as well. For example, it served as a model for the prison depicted in the 1967 Rolling Stones song Jigsaw Puzzle. More recently, mysterious street artist Banksy unveiled an artwork on Reading Gaol’s exterior wall in 2021 showing a prisoner rappelling down using knotted bedsheets.
Preserving the Building
Since Reading Gaol’s closure in 2014, debate has surrounded whether to preserve or repurpose the historic complex. The Victorian-era structure, while dilapidated in areas, is listed as a Grade II heritage building. Many supporters lobbied to convert the prison into an arts and cultural hub.
However, government officials ultimately decided to sell the site to residential developers in 2015. Art installations and events in 2016 allowed temporary public access that highlighted the jail’s rich history and architecture. But simmering tensions continue over balancing preservation with practical reuse.
Improving the Prison System
While Reading made efforts to reform prison education, it faced significant overcrowding and funding constraints as a Young Offenders Institution. Facilities and programming were limited. Its struggles epitomized systemic problems of inadequate rehabilitation efforts in prisons nationally.
Reading’s “separate system” origins also represented painful lessons about the psychological impacts of solitary confinement. Campaigners say Reading should spark examinations of more humane incarceration focused on restorative justice and social reintegration. Its complex legacy will continue influencing conversations around criminal justice reform.
HM Prison Reading has an intriguing and multifaceted history. Purpose-built in the 19th century for isolation, it ultimately transitioned into holding youth offenders. Though expanded programming sought rehabilitation, persistent challenges reflected wider shortcomings of prison systems and conditions. As a site ingrained in Britain’s cultural memory, the demolished jail’s future now centers on preserving its heritage while transforming the space to benefit Reading.
What time period was Reading Gaol operational?
Reading Gaol was in operation from 1844 until its closure in 2014, so just over 150 years. It served as the county prison for most of the 19th century.
How many executions took place at Reading Gaol?
Records indicate Reading Gaol conducted 55 public executions on its grounds between 1845-1868. After 1868 another 26 executions were carried out within the prison until the last in 1913.
What types of prisoners were held at Reading Gaol?
In its early years Reading held mainly criminal offenders like murderers, while also interning debtors. Later it housed youth and Irish nationalist prisoners. During the World Wars it interned primarily Germans.
Did any famous authors spend time at Reading Gaol?
Yes, Oscar Wilde was famously imprisoned in Reading from 1895-1897 for homosexual acts. There he wrote the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol based on his traumatic experiences.
What ultimately led to Reading Gaol’s closure in 2014?
Reading Gaol was closed primarily due to the aging, outdated facilities as well as declining rates of incarceration. The complex was costly to maintain as a Grade II listed building no longer suitable for modern prisons.