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A Sleeping Prison

Awaking a Sleeping Prison

Her Majesty's Prison in Road Town may be mostly inactive, but its long-standing presence and history in the heart of BVI's capital makes it far from forgotten.  Essentially abandoned in 1995 after 221 years of continuous use, the facility still stands strong with all of its walls and cells–and even surrounding barbed wire–largely intact. What a site for a museum! Some might ask: a museum in a prison? But several come to mind: Fort Christian in St Thomas; the military prison in Barbados that is now their National Museum; and the old jail in Inveraray, Scotland that has a fascinating courtroom with talking dummies. Imagine a tour of a cell at the old prison here: as you switch on the light, a voice from a prisoner at a makeshift table bellows, "Watcha starin' at?" Just then, a real-life prison cat slinks out through the grill and into the courtyard. And if you want gruesome, then rebuild the execution cell–the trapdoor and hanging beam are still in storage since its last use in 1974. In 2003, I brought these ideas to the table with a proposal to revive the still standing structure as a museum, while retaining the original 1774 walls and cells. Government officials accepted my plan, but difficulties to revive the prison would stand in my way.


I wasn't the first to devise a plan where the prison stands. In 1992, some outside experts devised a plan that would have torn down the historical building and in its place erected a modern glass-domed structure. The ambitious plan was eventually dismissed, as its starting price was the huge sum (for the day) of $4 million. My ideas perhaps were more modest, and followed those first presented by the Prison Visitors Committee, which suggested a place for prisoners of the new prison at Balsam Ghut to work and display their goods as part of a thoughtful prisoner reform programme.

Using two hardworking prison gangs, I made a good start by demolishing some of the newer, unsightly additions so as to get back closer to the original layout–in particular the little courtyard as I remembered it when I got my passport stamped there in 1965. At that time, the prison doubled as the BVI Police Headquarters, and even included the immigration and fire departments. Whilst I was working there one day a middle-aged gentleman poked his head around the gate and asked if he could look around. He had done time in cells number 4 and 10 some years before, and gave me a most interesting tour. I thought to myself, "Just the man we need as a guide later!" Unfortunately, this effort ground to a halt when the government changed hands. But The history of the prison remains encapsulated within its gated walls off Main Street.

The prison sits between the Anglican and Methodist churches, a strip historically referred to as "redemption row," with the prisoners' sandwiched location referred to as the "in-between." In 1958, famed US Author George T. Eggleston sailed the Virgin Islands–eventually writing a book about his travels–and stopped in Road Harbour to visit the Rev Denham Mullings at the Methodist church. Eggleston stopped at the open doors of the police station (also the prison) and talked to a pleasant man in blue denim who was sweeping the courtyard. There was only one prisoner on the books at the time. He came to me and said, "I am de prisonah!"


A lot has happened there since it was built in 1774 but little has changed on most of the ground floor or since the infamous Arthur Hodge hanging in 1811 and since the last condemned man was hung in 1974. But my thoughts then, in 2003, were that many stories could be displayed to tell its history and of those who served in the various services it housed and perhaps even of BVI military history; besides helping the prison service help those that deserved help and to provide Road Town with additional display and lecture halls. 


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