Outram Prison


Outram Prison was made up of jointly administered civil and criminal jails built side by side at the foot of Pearl’s Hill during Singapore’s colonial era. The prison started out as Pearl’s Hill Prison, designed by J. T. Thomson and built by Captain C. E. Faber in 1847. In 1882, a prison known as Her Majesty’s Service (HMS) Criminal Jail was built next to the civil prison. Outram Prison was demolished in 1970 and replaced by a public housing estate known as Outram Park Complex. The housing complex was demolished in the early 2000s.

In 1841, a prison facility known as the Convict Gaol was built at Bras Basah Road. On average, more than a thousand convicts were incarcerated in the attap and wooden dormitory-type buildings of the facility. To alleviate overcrowding, a civil jail was built at the foot of Pearl’s Hill in 1847. However, the punitive approach to prison management resulted in a high rate of recidivism and the continued problem of overcrowding. In 1882, a new jail known as Her Majesty’s Service (HMS) Criminal Jail was established next to Pearl’s Hill Prison. From that point on, the two jails were jointly administered as Outram Prison.

Outram Prison served as the only large prison facility in Singapore until 1936, when Changi Prison was built. It was the first major prison facility to use single cells for security purposes. It was also the site of the first regular female prison in Singapore. Detention blocks were also allocated for vagrants and juvenile delinquents who were too dangerous to be held in a boys’ home. After the establishment of Changi Prison, Outram Prison served primarily as a remand prison and housed prisoners who had committed lesser crimes. At the same time, a new policy of reform and rehabilitation was instituted for all prisons. For example, opium addicts were placed in Outram Prison and received treatment for their addiction.

Public executions were sometimes carried out on the prison grounds. One memorable example was the execution of mutineers of the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny. Sepoys from the Fifth Light Infantry Regiment reacted to rumours that they would be sent to fight fellow Muslims in Turkey by stealing ammunition from Alexandra Barracks and starting an insurrection. After the mutiny was put down, 96 mutineers were executed by firing squad and their leader, Kassim Mansoor, was hanged. As a final act of defiance, many refused a blindfold. These executions were carried out in public outside the grounds of the prison and witnessed by many bystanders.
Wartime detentions
During World War II, most local civilians detained by the Japanese were interned in Outram Prison while European prisoners of war were imprisoned in Changi. Captured American and Australian soldiers were also sometimes held in Outram. Reports of abuses and atrocities carried out in the prison by the Japanese later surfaced in accounts by surviving prisoners. Captured Allied soldiers were not classified as prisoners of war but were treated as war criminals by the Japanese. This status gave the Japanese the prerogative to execute the prisoners at will. For example, some captured bomber pilots were handed over to Japanese air force officers to be killed in Outram Prison. After the war, a number of Japanese soldiers were subsequently convicted of war crimes and executed on the prison grounds.
Political detentions
Outram Prison was also sometimes used as a detention and interrogation centre for political prisoners. British colonial authorities imprisoned several Malayan nationalists such as members of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) and members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in Outram Prison during the period after World War II. Most notably, about 120 left-wing political activists were arrested in February 1963 in a big internal security crackdown known as Operation Cold Store. These arrests were authorised by an Internal Security Council comprising of representatives from the British colonial authorities, Malaysia Federal government and the Singapore government. Among the activists arrested were Lim Chin Siong, the Barisan Sosialis secretary-general, and A. Mahadeva, the former secretary-general of the Singapore Union of Journalists. The detainees were placed in Outram Prison for several months before being moved in batches to Changi Prison and St John’s Island.

In 1947, Mr W Stillingford, a foreign prisons officer visiting Singapore, noted that the facilities in Outram Prison were inadequate. Escapes from the prison were a recurring problem in the 1950s and 1960s. At least one inmate climbed over a 15-foot wall in order to escape. Others, usually juvenile offenders, escaped while working outside the prison walls as part of their reformative training. Most of these escapees were reportedly caught one or two days later. At least one escapee alleged that he had been beaten by other prisoners in the prison. As part of several measures to maintain security in the prison, Singapore Police carried out simulation exercises to practise the management of untoward occurrences such as escapes and prison riots.

In 1966, Outram Prison was replaced by Queenstown Remand Prison. The latter was built at a cost of $2 million and continued to uphold the policy of rehabilitating and re-educating prisoners instead of punishing them. Outram Prison itself was eventually demolished in February 1966  and replaced in 1970 by Outram Park Complex, a large public housing estate and the first to have integrated shopping facilities. In 1995, the Ministry of National Development announced that the housing estate was earmarked for redevelopment under the Selected En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS), and the apartment blocks were in turn demolished in the early 2000s.

1847 : Pearl’s Hill Prison was built.
1882 : Her Majesty’s Service Criminal Jail was established next to Pearl’s Hill Prison. The two jails were jointly administered as Outram Prison.
1915 : Sepoy Mutiny. Leaders of the mutiny were executed publicly at the prison.
1936 : Changi Prison was built. A new philosophy of reform and rehabilitation was promulgated for all prisons.
1942 : Japanese Occupation. The prison was used as a detention centre for prisoners of war.
1963 : Operation Cold Store. Leaders of leftist parties and unions were arrested. They were interrogated and detained in Outram Prison.
1966 : Outram Prison replaced by Queenstown Remand Prison. Detainees were sent to the new prison.
1970 : Outram Prison demolished and Outram Park Complex built.

Faizah bte Zakaria

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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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