300 jobs at risk as iconic jail faces axe
The historic Dartmoor prison "does not have a long-term future" and is likely to close in ten years, the Government has announced.
Opened in 1809 to house prisoners from the Napoleonic wars, the remote facility in Princetown cuts an intimidating figure on the national park and provides much-needed jobs across west Devon.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which unveiled its latest prison modernisation programme yesterday, said the "age and limitations of the prison" means it has entered discussions with owners the Duchy of Cornwall to end its lease.
West Devon and Torridge MP Geoffrey Cox said it would be "wholly unacceptable" if the listed building was left to rot and no new jobs found. The Prison Reform Trust said it could become a museum.
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One wing of the ageing building, a category C prison for male inmates, has already closed and the MoJ made clear it is in "poor physical condition".
While officials refused to say whether a replacement would be built in the far South West, it seems unlikely as the policy is to build prisons closer to large towns and cities in more populated regions.
HMP Dartmoor and its striking granite walls have featured in literature and films including the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series.
Once holding 6,000 prisoners, today around 660 criminals are incarcerated there. The prison still employs about 300 staff, making it the biggest source of work for miles.
The Dartmoor announcement came as it was confirmed a further four prisons are to due close – including Dorchester – and plans to build two new "super" jails in England and Wales.
Blundeston in Suffolk, Northallerton in North Yorkshire and Reading prisons will close. Plans to build a 2,000-place new prison in Wrexham, North Wales, were confirmed and feasibility has started on a second large prison to be built in the south east of England.
An MoJ statement read: "The Ministry of Justice will begin discussions with the Duchy of Cornwall about the future of HMP Dartmoor, as part of the Government's ongoing plans to modernise the prison estate which is fairer on the hardworking taxpayer.
"The decision to start negotiations is not a reflection of the prison's current performance, but about its poor physical condition. The age and limitations of the prison means it does not have a long-term future in a modern, cost-effective prison system.
"Final decisions on the future of Dartmoor are a long way off as the lease has a ten-year notice period."
Conservative MP Mr Cox, whose constituency includes the prison, urged ministers to ensure there is an alternative economic use for the listed building. He said: "This is extremely disappointing. The presence of a prison on Dartmoor has been there for 200 years, and it has been particularly important for the people of Princetown.
"We cannot let the prison completely disappear. I have said to the minister and the county council there is a responsibility to find a long-term future for the prison that is to the economic benefit of the people of Princetown.
"This is an historic building. It may well be used for a museum or a tourist attraction if proper investment is put into it."
A third of Dartmoor park and its prison are owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales's private estate.
Redevelopment could prove tricky given the stringent planning restrictions on Dartmoor National Park.
Quite apart from its crumbling buildings, HMP Dartmoor is viewed by some as being too remote for families to visit relations in prison, which is regarded as important for rehabilitation.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It is sometimes swathed in mist and extremely isolated and on a very bleak stretch of moor. It is very difficult to reach on any kind of public transport."