From locked down to locked up as Shrewsbury Prison reopens to the public

Salopians may have spent several months being locked up, but bosses of a prison are hoping they'll still be up for a trip to the slammer.

Owner Joel Campbell in Shrewsbury Prison's hanging area
Owner Joel Campbell in Shrewsbury Prison's hanging area

Shrewsbury Prison reopens to the public on Monday for the first time in four months and, despite being hit hard financially by the pandemic, investments have been made to make it an even more exciting place to visit.

Newly installed on the ground floor are cells "through the ages", so visitors can get a taste for how a Victorian cells would look for men – with uncomfortable looking hammock beds side by side – and women, who would have had their babies with them in a cradle if they gave birth while serving time.

There is also a riot cell - complete with smashed-up furniture, a skinhead prisoner and a helmet-clad officer ready for a confrontation - and a freezing cold solitary cell, with a rock hard slab that inmates would have been tossing and turning upon.

"It gives people a real sense of what the place was like for the prisoners," said sales and marketing director Harriet Pennant-Williams. "We've got the information up on the walls too so when people come for non-guided tours, they can get a more rich experience."

A riot cell
An example of a modern day cell at Shrewsbury Prison

Upon looking at a rope-strung bed in one of the cells, owner Joel Campbell shared a nugget of wisdom. "As they slept, the rope would stretch, so it would have to be tightened up," he said. "That's where the phrase 'sleep tight' came from."

The first floor is designed to be more of an authentic prison wing, with narrow corridors and suicide nets in place to catch prisoners. It has been a popular filming area for several high-profile television shows, including Coronation Street, Casualty, Holby City, and Sky One's Brassic – which recently had stars Michelle Keegan and Joe Gilgun at the prison to shoot scenes. It is planned that some cells will carry memorabilia from film and television shows that visited.

Elsewhere there is an area for "prisoner visits", where inmates would sit opposite loved ones while guards kept a close eye, and a dark tourism room chronicling the details of some of the UK's most notorious killers, some of whom resided at Shrewsbury Prison.

The prison was recently ranked by BBC Radio 4 as one of the top "dark tourism" destinations in the world, in a list that included Auschwitz and Chernobyl.

"We're really proud of that," said Harriet. "Dark tourism is a huge industry. There is a morbid curiosity, there always has been. It's why people go to places like Alcatraz. You wouldn't see places like this, unless you go out and commit a crime."

A male Victorian cell
Several changes have been made to the visitor experience at Shrewsbury Prison

A museum room shows a variety of artefacts, including prison officer badges, uniforms, and items prisoners would have made in their cells including a boat from matchsticks and a miniature cell. Photos loom large of Royle Family actor Ricky Tomlinson – one of the prison's most famous inmates and one of the Shrewsbury 24 whose convictions were recently cleared – and George Riley, the last man hanged at the prison.

The hanging room will also be open to the public. Visitors will walk past the executioner's room, before entering the main room where a wooden box surrounds a sheer drop. Placards adorn the walls telling the tales of prisoners who met their fate.

Yet, as site manager Lauren Watkins explains, it isn't the most haunted part of the building. The restaurant and C-wing are the areas that send shivers down the spines of staff.

A female Victorian cell
The executioner's room

"There used to be a butchery here. We didn't know this until a couple of years ago, but an inmate quite violently committed suicide. We recreated the butchery, without knowing what had happened, and noticed since then there was lots of paranormal activity."

It was only when Walter Groom, a former inmate who once escaped the prison, told them what had happened, things started to make sense.

"We do ghost tours, but it's more about the history," added Lauren. "We use it to explain what it might have been like to be a prisoner here."

Staff are looking forward to welcoming people back, and Harriet explained: "We're doing pretty much everything, from guided tours, self-guided tours, ghost tours, prison break. People can do a night behind bars. It is a spooky place at night.

"We're having to do reduced numbers on guided tours to comply with social distancing. But as we've said before, the prison was designed to keep people apart. Everything is Covid-compliant and we're good to go.

"People come from all over to visit, and we always encourage them to visit the castle, or the Sabrina boat or just go and see the brilliant independent shops.

"We really want people to come and see us. It hasn't been the same when people aren't around."

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