HM Prison Wandsworth
HM Prison Wandsworth is one of the oldest and largest prisons in the United Kingdom, with a long and storied history dating back over 170 years. Located in Wandsworth in South West London, this Category B men’s prison has housed many notorious inmates over the decades, from political figures to violent criminals. Once known for harsh conditions and frequent executions, Wandsworth remains a formidable institution symbolic of the British penal system.
Location and Description
HM Prison Wandsworth is situated at Heathfield Road in Wandsworth, the southwest borough of London, England. The imposing Victorian prison building has an austere brick facade and a central dome. The layout consists of several cell blocks branching off from a central surveillance hub, a design meant to keep prisoners under observation at all times. The prison’s buildings and grounds cover some 26 acres along the River Wandle.
History and Notable Events
Origins as Surrey House of Correction
Construction of HM Prison Wandsworth began in 1851, when it opened as the Surrey House of Correction. The original design included a radial layout allowing for constant observation of inmates. Prisoners had solitary cells and toilet facilities that were later removed to expand capacity.
Executions at Wandsworth
Between 1878 and 1961, Wandsworth Prison conducted 135 executions by hanging, more than any other prison in the United Kingdom during that time. The gallows were located between the prison’s E and F cell blocks. Notable people executed at Wandsworth include serial killer George Chapman, and William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw.
The Great Train Robbery and Infamous Escapes
On August 8, 1963, Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison while serving a 30-year sentence for his role in the Great Train Robbery. After scaling the prison wall and dropping onto a waiting furniture van, Biggs fled to Paris, marking one of the most sensational jailbreaks in British history.
Recent Controversies and Loss of Reform Status
In October 2009, a scandal erupted when it was revealed Wandsworth Prison had been manipulating population figures prior to inspections by temporarily transferring prisoners to other jails. After a surprise inspection in 2011, inspectors raised concerns about poor conditions and lack of accountability among staff and managers. Subsequently, Wandsworth lost its status as a reform prison.
Prison Structure and Operations
Category and Security Level
As a Category B prison, Wandsworth houses offenders who do not require maximum security but for whom escape needs to be tightly controlled. The prison has eight wings, including a smaller unit that originally housed female prisoners.
Population and Overcrowding Issues
Built to accommodate under a thousand inmates, HMP Wandsworth now holds between 1,300-1,500 prisoners. Chronic overcrowding has intensified problems with violence, drugs, suicide risk, and inadequate staffing. Cells designed for one prisoner often house two or three.
Wings, Units and Cell Blocks
Wandsworth’s triangular main building has five wings radiating from a central area known as the Centre Block. The smaller C Unit contains three wings used to house inmates engaged in work and education. Inmates are assigned to cell blocks according to the length of their sentence and behavior.
Staff and Management Concerns
With nearly 600 staff, Wandsworth operates with a ratio of about one officer to every three prisoners. Staff levels have not kept pace with the swelling inmate population. Moreover, investigations have uncovered corruption, drug smuggling and misconduct among prison staff.
Education and Rehabilitation
All prisoners at Wandsworth have access to educational courses, vocational training, workshops, skills building programs and two gyms. The prison offers rehabilitation through its chaplaincy, counseling services, addiction treatment and more. Still, lack of activities and poor facilities undermine these efforts.
Notable Inmates Over the Years
Famous Literary Prisoners
As one of England’s oldest and most notorious prisons, Wandsworth has incarcerated many prominent literary and creative figures. The famed Irish playwright Oscar Wilde spent two years there doing hard labor starting in 1895 after being convicted of homosexuality.
Violent Criminals and Gangsters
Wandsworth has housed some of the country’s most violent offenders, often before their execution at the prison. Serial killer George Chapman, who poisoned three of his wives, awaited his 1903 hanging at Wandsworth. Gangster brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray, known as the Krays, both served time there in later decades.
Throughout its long history, Wandsworth Prison has locked up rebels, radicals and reformers. Suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrests for civil disobedience led to several stints there in the early 1900s. More recently, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was briefly held there while fighting extradition.
Athletes, Musicians and Other Celebrities
Living up to its fame, Wandsworth has caged various sports stars, pop stars and other celebrities over the years. Former tennis pro Boris Becker served time for tax evasion. Musicians Pete Doherty and Boy George have also done stretches there.
Wandsworth Prison in Pop Culture
Depictions in Film and TV
With its imposing Gothic architecture, Wandsworth Prison has been an iconic cinematic backdrop. The brutal facility served as the setting of the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange based on the Anthony Burgess novel. More recently, it appeared in the documentary Ronnie Biggs: What The Hell I Got Away With and an episode of Luther.
In Music and Books
Artists from Elvis Costello to the Genesis have mentioned Wandsworth Prison in their songs. Books like Atonement by Ian McEwan have pivotal scenes set within its walls. Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, an epistle to his lover, while jailed there, cementing its place in literary history.
With its long history of executions, misery and suffering, Wandsworth Prison is considered one of England’s most haunted sites. Paranormal investigators have reported encountering apparitions and recording voices of ghosts said to haunt the prison. Its haunted heritage only adds to its ominous mystique.
HM Prison Wandsworth stands as one of the oldest active prisons in the world, and remains a significant maximum-security institution in London’s justice system. Overcrowded and understaffed in recent times, Wandsworth is a microcosm of the larger problems facing prisons today. Yet it endures as a reminder of the immense human impact, from the famous to the forgotten, of the penal system on British society over nearly two centuries. With its iconic dome and imposing walls, Wandsworth remains entrenched in the public imagination as symbolic of crime and punishment in London.
When was HM Prison Wandsworth built?
HM Prison Wandsworth was built in 1851 in Wandsworth, South West London. It opened as the Surrey House of Correction.
What category and security level is Wandsworth Prison?
Wandsworth is a Category B men’s prison, meaning it houses offenders who don’t require maximum security but for whom escape must be tightly controlled.
What is the current population at HMP Wandsworth?
The population at Wandsworth is around 1,300-1,500 prisoners, though the prison was originally designed for fewer than 1,000 inmates. This overcrowding causes major issues.
Who are some of the most famous inmates imprisoned at Wandsworth?
Some of the most well known figures jailed at Wandsworth include Oscar Wilde, Ronnie Biggs of the Great Train Robbery, gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
How many executions took place at Wandsworth Prison?
From 1878 to 1961, there were 135 judicial executions carried out by hanging at HM Prison Wandsworth under British law, more than at any other UK prison.