Outram Prison


One of Singapore’s earliest prisons was located at the foot of Pearl’s Hill in Outram.1 The original civil jail at the site was built in 1847 by Charles Edward Faber; in 1882, a new prison complex was built around the old civil jail by J. F. A. McNair.2 The Outram Prison, as it was known in its later decades, was demolished in 1963 to make way for redevelopment.3

Background
Singapore’s first civil jail was built around 1823 between Macao Street (now Pickering Street) and South Bridge Road. It was subsequently rebuilt by Edward Lake between 1829 and 1830.4 However, due to the unsound structure of the building, as well as health-related problems suffered by the inmates as a result of frequent flooding, the site was converted into the Central Police Station while a new civil jail was constructed at the foot of Pearl’s Hill.5

The Bengal government approved the building of a jail at the foot of Pearl’s Hill in 1836.6 The site was chosen because of its proximity to Sepoy Lines – it was thought that the garrison troops quartered there could offer added protection should a mutiny occur at prison.7

On 6 February 1847, the foundation stone of the prison was laid by architect and superintending engineer Charles Edward Faber in the presence of Governor William J. Butterworth and Resident Councillor Thomas Church. Buried at the base of the foundation stone were two time capsules: one containing a piece of parchment on which trade statistics and revenue figures were written, and another with specimens of various currencies. Copies of the local dailies and the year’s official directory were also deposited beneath the stone.8

Description of the original prison
It was initially envisaged, in 1836, that the new civil jail would comprise a wall surrounding a quadrangle within which would be buildings made of kajang (also spelt cadjan; Malay term meaning “woven palm leaves”) and attap.9

The civil jail was built by Faber in 1847 based on the plan drawings of Government Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson.10 Convict labour was used to construct the two-storey, cross-shaped brick-and-mortar building with a pitched roof and enclosed by a wall. Each floor had 10 outward-facing rooms, with each of the ground-floor rooms linked to an adjacent yard. Each room and yard catered to a specific group of offenders, such as debtors, natives, Europeans and native capital criminals. There was also a yard and separate quarters for the warders. The jailer’s room was at the centre of the cross, allowing him a bird’s-eye view of all the prisoners.11

The Pearl’s Hill jail held both European and native offenders, and they were organised by race and type of conviction. European prisoners were accorded better treatment and living conditions – in the early decades of the prison’s existence, at least.12

Extension
Following the prison riot at the Bras Basah convict jail on 13 February 1875, which resulted in the death of its prison superintendent, Digby Henry Dent, there were renewed calls for a new and more secure criminal prison. After some debate as to whether the new prison should be an extension of the Bras Basah jail or the Pearl’s Hill civil jail, it was decided that it would be constructed at the Pearl’s Hill site.13


Description
The extension to the original civil jail was designed by executive engineer and superintendent of convicts J. F. A. McNair between 1877 and 1878; by 1879, construction had begun.14 McNair’s plans for the extension showed how the prison philosophies of the day influenced his design. Building around the original prison, the space was more cellular and the focus of the prison philosophy was more punitive than before.15 The new complex was largely built by convicts from the Bras Basah jail, who were to be moved there upon its completion.16 The foundation stone for the new complex was laid by Governor William Cleaver Francis Robinson on 30 January 1879.17 Construction of the new complex was completed in 1882.18

The complex had five prison blocks for male criminals: four for natives and one for Europeans. Other buildings and amenities included the women’s criminal and civil prisons, hospitals, employees’ quarters, work sheds, a photography department, punishment cell, execution room and dead house. The new structures were erected around the old civil jail, which retained its former function.19

The Pearl’s Hill prison underwent a host of changes over the years. In January 1937, its long-term prisoners were transferred to the new convict prison in Changi. The Pearl’s Hill jail subsequently held offenders serving short sentences.20

By 1949, the jail complex had 988 cells, spread among the criminal, remand and female prisons, 944 of which were in the criminal section. The hospital was equipped with 94 beds.21

In 1951, the block for European convicts was converted into a new female prison.22 Four years later, in April 1955, one of the halls in the complex was used to house 220 one-man cells for incarcerating convicts who intimidated others in the shared cells.23

On 1 July 1957, a reformative training centre for youths opened at the Outram complex, replacing the remand prison.24

Organisation
Prior to World War II, the prison superintendent headed the staff of warders. Complaints, requests and breaches in prison rules were brought to the superintendent. Second in rank was the gaoler (jailer), then the deputy gaoler, followed by the warders and sub-warders. Those in the positions of warders and above were typically Europeans and provided with accommodation. The starting salary of a warder was around $200 a month in the 1930s.25

After the war, the headquarters of the newly formed Prisons Department was housed in the administrative block within the complex. The Prisons Department, as well as the Pearl’s Hill jail, was administered by the commissioner of prisons, who was assisted by three gaolers (known as chief officers from 1950).26

Prison labour and industries
The prison generated income through a range of crafts and skills provided by the prisoners. These included husk-beating, carpentry, tinsmithing, weaving, tailoring, rattan work and shoemaking.27

Almost all the mailbags used by the postal and telegraph services in the 1920s were made by the inmates. Uniforms, shoes, blankets and towels that were used in the jail were woven and produced by the prisoners. They also maintained a photography studio, bakery and laundry, among other services. One of the highest-earning industries was the press that printed government publications.28

Despite these vocational duties, no training system was in place to seriously cultivate the prisoners’ skills with a view to preparing them for life after the prison.29

Punishment and executions
Prisoners who flouted rules were punished using the rotan (Malay for “rattan”), before which a hearing with the prison superintendent was conducted. The caning process was observed by the superintendent and a medical officer.30

From its earliest days, execution by hanging had taken place at Pearl’s Hill jail.31 Between February and April 1915, 47 men from the Indian 5th Light Infantry Regiment who were involved in a deadly mutiny on 15 February that year were executed by a firing squad at Pearl’s Hill. Most of the condemned were publicly executed outside the prison gates as a form of deterrence, with crowds numbering in the thousands for some of the executions.32

Japanese Occupation
During the Japanese Occupation, half of the prison was used to hold military prisoners or prisoners-of-war, while the other half was for civilian prisoners.33 A total of 1,470 prisoners, mostly Chinese, died at the Outram Prison during the war – 141 were executed while the rest died of torture, starvation or diseases. Only 400 survived upon liberation in September 1945.34 Forty-three Japanese military men were tried for war crimes committed while they were in charge of the Outram Road jail.35


After the war, British forces returned and continued to use the Outram Prison for detaining common criminals,36 which was overcrowded in the immediate postwar years. The problem was eased when the British military, which had been using Changi Prison to hold Japanese war criminals, handed it back to the Prisons Department in 1947.37

The Japanese removed the foundation stone of the Outram Prison during the Occupation.38

Political detentions
After World War II, the Outram Prison was also used as a detention and interrogation centre for political detainees such as the Middle Road trade unionists who were imprisoned during the 1956 riots.39 In 1963, most of the left-wing political activists and unionists arrested during a series of security crackdowns known as Operation Coldstore – numbering over a hundred including Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong – were held at the Outram premises for several months before being relocated to Changi Prison and St John’s Island.40

Demolition

As early as the late 1920s, the land on which the prison sat had been deemed too valuable for carceral purposes, and calls were made to relocate it.41 The prison was unable to support an entrenched system of segregation and classification, and overcrowding was an issue. As such, hardened criminals were incarcerated together with vagrants and juveniles, and recalcitrant civilian prisoners were also held together with first-time offenders. The prison was also perceived to be at risk of collective unrest.42

In 1947, the security of the prison complex came under public scrutiny following a spate of escapes.43 Three years later, the prisons commissioner labelled the facility as “antiquated and wasteful in manpower” in the 1950 Prisons Department annual report.44


In March 1963, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced that the Outram Prison would be demolished and a Housing and Development Board estate built in its place. The land on which the prison complex sat was part of a large area slated for redevelopment.45 Demolition of certain sections of Outram facility began shortly after.46

The Outram Prison was replaced by the Queenstown Remand Prison, which opened in September 1966.47 The latter was built at a cost of S$2 million and continued to uphold the policy of rehabilitating and re-educating prisoners.48

By October 1966, piling work for the housing project had begun on the site of the former jail.49 The resulting Outram Park estate featured some 1,240 flats and 464 shops. By 1970, the Outram Park Complex was almost entirely opened, although business in the residential-cum-shopping complex was dismal.50

Variant names
H. M. Prison (colonial times) (His or Her Majesty’s Prison, depending on the gender of the ruling British monarch at the time)51

Singapore Prison52
Criminal Prison53
Pearl’s Hill Prison or Pearl’s Hill Gaol/Jail54
Outram Road Gaol/Jail55
Outram Prison56




References
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23. To each a cell in this gaol soon. (1954, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sochon, W. L. P. (1956). Annual report of the Singapore prisons for the year 1955 [Microfilm: NL 9476]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 2.
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36. Sam, J. (1984, September 30). Outram Park. Singapore Monitor, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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38. Foundation stone back. (1948, October 9). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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46. Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official report. (1963, April 8). Yang di-Pertuan Negara’s speech (debate on the address) (Vol. 20). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 170. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
47. Wok opens $2 mil prison in Queenstown.  (1966, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
48. New prison in Queenstown planned. (1964, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wok opens $2 mil prison in Queenstown. (1966, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
49. A prison makes way for 1,000 flats. (1966, October 5). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
50. New homes for 12,500 at the old jail for 760. (1970, May 12). The Straits Times, p. 4; Yap, M. (1984, November 16). Woes of Outram Park. The Straits Times, p. 1; Move to draw more shoppers to Outram. (1971, February 12). The Straits Times, p. 8; HDB’s ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. (1971, May 14). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51. Problem of the ex-prisoner. (1934, April 19). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 184. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
52. Report on the prisons of the colony. (1903, May 2). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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56. These men are happy they went to gaol. (1952, December 19). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
100 years ago. (1993 March 20). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Bowden, T. (2014). Stubborn buggers: Survivors of the infamous POW gaol that made Changi look like heaven. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.
Call no.: RSEA 940.547252092 BOW-[WAR]

Life in the Singapore prison. (1935, May 19). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Revelations of life in Singapore prison. (1935, April 28). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Revelations of life in Singapore prison. (1935, May 5). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The criminal prison report 1877. (1878, July 13). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The Singapore jail in 1892. (1893, March 22). Straits Times Weekly, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Authors
Bonny Tan, Vernon Cornelius-Takahama, Faizah bte Zakaria and Fiona Lim



The information in this article is valid as at 10 June 2015 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. 

Subject
Politics and Government
Streets and Places
Law and government>>Regulatory role
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Civic and Administrative Buildings
Prisons--Singapore
Heritage and Culture

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2015.