Provost Prison – Sleeping Behind Bars

If you’re looking for a historical tourist attraction with a macabre twist whilst visiting the beautiful old city of Grahamstown, make sure you visit the Provost Prison. Built in 1838 by the order of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the name is derived from is relationship with the Provost Marshall. The Provost Marshall was the officer who was responsible not only for maintaining order, but also for the punishment and custody of military offenders, such as deserters, in 19th century military camps. The Prison was designed on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison system which was an 18th century design that facilitated the ‘ceaseless surveillance’ of the prisoners held within the prison’s walls.

At that point in time, Sir Benjamin D’Urban was not only Governor but also Commander-in-Chief of the Cape Colony. The military prison was part of a fortified barrack which was being built for the protection of the colony. The Provost Prison was built by the Royal Engineers and was based on the panopticon prison system which consisted of an outer circle of cells complete with exercise yards which surrounded a two-storey guardhouse. The theory was that the prisoners could be kept under constant guard from the windows of the tower and, since each cell adjoined a small exercise yard, the prisoners seldom had need to leave their cells.

In 1937, the Old Provost Prison was declared a national monument. Following this it was restored by the Cape Provincial Administration before being handed over to the Albany Museum in 1982. The prison still has a very real, very grisly feel to it – though it is unlikely that any drastic punishments were ever metered out here. If you want to get a strong feel for prison life in the Cape during the 19th century, you might consider visiting during the Grahamstown National Arts Festival when the cells in Grahamstown’s Old Provost Prison are let out as a form of accommodation. Though you may sleep soundly knowing that you have the key to your own cell, many find the thought of sleeping in a strongly historic building that once housed criminals to be most disconcerting. Add to this the names scratched on the wall and the eerie moonlight which filters in at night, and you might well find yourself counting sheep as sleep eludes you. Whatever you decided, make sure that the Old Provost Prison is a part of your travel plans.

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