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The persistence of the Victorian prison

An ESRC-funded project in collaboration with the universities of Birmingham and Bath, and the Howard League for Penal Reform

The persistent prison: alteration, inhabitation, obsolescence and affirmative design

In England and Wales today, more than a quarter of prisoners live in Victorian-era prison accommodation.

The continued operation of these historic prisons has been the subject of intense criticism, with such buildings frequently described as obsolete and unfit for purpose. The research project ‘The Persistence of the Victorian Prison: Alteration, Inhabitation, Obsolescence and Affirmative Design’ aims to understand the implications of the longevity and persistence of the Victorian prison.

Project aims

The project aims to answer five questions about the continued use of these historic prisons:

  • How has the fabric of Victorian prison buildings changed over time?
  • How do Victorian prisons function today?
  • What does it feel like to live and work in Victorian prisons?
  • How has the cultural framing of the Victorian prison shaped the collective consciousness?
  • What is the fallout of the continued operation of Victorian prisons?

We want to understand what these prisons are like to live and work in, and how this has changed over time. Crucially, this project explores the implications of the continued operation of Victorian-era prisons for the contemporary prison service, and aims to inform policy development.

For more information, please visit the project website.

Our involvement

Established in the Victorian era, the Howard League is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK, and it has tracked the evolution of Victorian prisons. The project will draw on this wealth of experience, as well as on the Howard League’s archives, and will partner with the Howard League in communicating the outcomes of research to policymakers and the public.

Get involved

We are interested in speaking to former prison staff and people with lived experience of prison, about their experiences of these historic buildings.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences, we would love to hear from you!

Please email the project team at or visit:

The research team

Dominique Moran is Professor of Carceral Geography in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK. She is interested in the relationship between people and places and she brings this perspective to the prison, focusing on the lived experience of prison spaces and the ways in which prison buildings influence those who live and work in them, and vice versa.

Matt Houlbrook is Professor of Cultural History in the Department of History, at the University of Birmingham, UK. He works on the cultural history of 20th century Britain, with particular interests in histories of gender and sexuality, space and identity, and the relationship between culture, crime, and politics.

Yvonne Jewkes is Professor of Criminology in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences, at the University of Bath. Her main research interests are prison architecture, design and technology, and how they can assist in rehabilitating offenders, enhancing prisoners’ quality of life and wellbeing, reducing trauma, improving prisoner-staff relations, and making prison staff feel like a professionalised and valued workforce.

Eleanor March is Research Fellow in Interdisciplinary Prison Research in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, at the University of Birmingham, UK. She researches cultural representations of the carceral, focusing on prisoner writing, literary and media representations of prisons, and prison history. Her research has an interdisciplinary focus, working across literature, carceral geography, criminology and history.

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