On a clear night here, we can see millions, perhaps billions, of stars in the sky and moon shadows far across the land, because we live free of light pollution. Well, almost! High up on the moors, some three miles away, is the town of Princetown, home of legendary Dartmoor Prison. This lonely, bleak, forbidding structure of grey stonewalls sits highly illuminated in the heart of Dartmoor National Park.
I’ve seen the inside of many prisons in my life, and, I must add, not because I was doing time. My first encounter was the Greene County Jail. In elementary school we took a field trip to said local establishment and I’m certain it was our teacher’s effort at crime prevention, ala Scared Straight. In that 1978 documentary a group of juvenile delinquents spend three hours in Rahway State Penitentiary, New Jersey, being berated and lectured at length by a group of “lifers”. During our visit, each child got to stand in a cell for a few seconds. It must have worked because I’ve never broken the speed limit, let alone committed a crime.
That said, it hasn’t stopped this Little-Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes from trying to get inside gaol. I’ve crossed the rough and dangerous waters of the San Francisco Bay to visit the now disused Alcatraz prison and ferried over the treacherous shark infested Ocean to land upon Robben Island, which infamously held Nelson Mandela. Any number of castle dungeons and cells, including The Tower of London, have all made my tourist list.
With their formidably high walls, battlements of razor wire, and very high security, prisons fascinate: Which notorious characters served time there? How did some of them escape? What is prison life really like? Luckily for me, the Dartmoor Prison is the only prison in the UK with a museum, handily located directly opposite and in very close proximity! With the endless hammering from the roofers currently at our house driving me to flee, my curiosity about this prison ultimately got the better of me and I headed off to the Darmoor Prison museum.
I was prepared for a curatorial overview of statistics and history and a sense of what the cells are like. After all, as previously mentioned, I’ve been in prison before and I know this is often the typical presentation. What I wasn’t prepared for was the avenue of garden gnomes lining the path leading up to the museum entrance. These pint-sized figurines, with their pointy hats, that inhabit so many gardens around the world, first got their start in 19th century Germany. Apparently, 1847 first saw the arrival of these troll like statuaries in the UK and they have since come to be regarded, by many, as an essential accessory item to the domestic garden. Not ours, I hasten to point out.
As innocent as gnomes themselves may be, they too are sometimes involved in crime. Many have been stolen, kidnapped even, and smuggled via suitcase or backpack to be photographed and showcased in exotic locations throughout the globe. Such “gnoming pranks” form the basis of the storyline in the 2001 movie Amelie. The pastime has grown more popular with Travelocity, which sponsors a “Roaming Gnome Game”. One 53-year old French man was recently arrested for stealing as many as 170 gnomes. Standing at the entrance of the museum, I wondered, was it this middle-aged man from Brittany who placed these gnomes here and is he serving time across the road?
Pranks aside, the real crime as I see it is that making gnomes for the museum gift shop is a form of job skill development and rehabilitation for the inmates. I’m not alone in this assessment, either. In the February 2006 “Report on an Unannounced Short Follow-up Inspection of HMP Dartmoor”, the HMP Chief Inspector writes:
“Work opportunities within the prison had improved beyond recognition since our 2001 inspection, when little else was available other than a workshop painting garden gnomes. Prisoners now had access to a range of work-related courses, including plumbing, carpentry and brickwork; and allocation to activities was well-managed and responsive to assessed needs. At the time of the inspection, there were still too many prisoners, around one in six, engaged in largely unproductive activities on residential wings, and there were too few qualifications on offer.”
So now, in addition to the gnomes, this small gift shop also flogs keepsakes such as little garden signs reading, “Keep off the grass” or “Beware of the dog”, and a collection of wooden plant labels for the vegetable plot. There is larger merchandise such as doors, bird feeders, and wooden planters. I was tempted to purchase the bag of kindling, as 50p for the large size seemed a good price.
We have a piece of prison furniture in our home. My great grandfather was the prison warden in Marquette, Michigan in the early 1900s. In the prison woodshop, the prisoners made a silver chest with internal mechanisms that must be manipulated in such a way in order for the drawers to open. It was a wedding gift to my grandparents and then my grandmother gave it to my parents when they wed. It is a beautiful little piece and I like its story and how it came into my life.
Dartmoor Prison museum is housed in the old prison dairy with exhibits organized historically from 1805 this being the date the prison was first built for French and American Prisoners of War. Once the true criminals started to arrive, they were made to work and the meaning of hard labour was well and truly experienced: quarrying, cultivating and draining the moor, clearing fields and building walls and paths. What Roger and I wouldn’t do to have a work release program come out and assist, but the days of prisoners working with area stone seem to have come and gone. Stop making gnomes lads and help us make some repairs!
Today the prison is a category C, which means those inside are unlikely to make determined escape attempts due to lack of desire, resources or skills. This comes as a relief living but a stones throw away. Back in the day, the prison was a category B establishment and held men who were a high escape risk. The buildings are grade II listed and come under the purview of English Heritage. Permission for alterations to improve security was denied and Dartmoor prison was downgraded to category C in 2001.
Despite this change in escape threat, the museum displays samples of lots of escape equipment that has been confiscated from inmates over the years. In addition to some clever homemade door keys, one newer item to the museum was a grappling hook fashioned from a bent metal chair leg with knotted sheets wrapped around it. Over the 150 years of prison history, there have been hundreds of successful escapes the most recent being in 2003 when three prisoners managed to break out. I guess if you are brave enough to attempt this, then you are up to wandering about Dartmoor in the cold and wet without an OS map.
Funnily enough, there is a story of one inmate who wanted to stay in the prison. David Davis was a trusted convict and became the shepherd for the prison farm service. He spent 55 of his 80 years behind bars and in that time tended to the sheep. He served several terms and, upon each release, would commit further crime in order to be sent back to Dartmoor prison. Long since dead, it is said that his ghostly shepherd image can be seen wandering the moors alongside a flock of sheep. I haven’t seen him yet, but can’t he keep those darn sheep out of our yard?
The museum also houses the usual items of interest: the flogging frame, medical table, confiscated weapons and drug paraphernalia, and innovative tattoo equipment. What is unique, and unlikely sanctioned by the curators because it represents an act of vandalism, is my favourite prank. Someone has dared to bring into the museum a black marker pen and work their graffiti magic on two manikins, one, which portrays a prisoner in his convict garb, is now sporting a black eye while the other, dressed in a guard’s uniform, has a silly mustache.
Moving past the gift shop tat and through the museum, one is reminded that this prison is in the middle of Dartmoor National Park. Placed here not because it is an extraordinarily beautiful location, but because it is synomomous with harsh conditions. The prison has a long history and reputation as a punishment prison for intractable repeat offenders, coupled with various riots, murders, spectacular escapes and notorious inmates giving it the reputation as one of the hardest places a British convict could serve time. And maybe making garden gnomes remains the harshest of punishments.