What is Durham Prison Like?

Durham Prison What is it like

What is Durham Prison Like? An In-depth Look at the Category B Facility


HM Prison Durham is located in the Elvet district of Durham City and serves as a Category B men’s correctional facility. Managed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service, this institution can house up to 1,071 inmates and mainly serves the judicial systems of County Durham, Tyne and Wear, and Teesside. Comprising seven different wings, a healthcare unit, and a unit for segregation, the facility also offers a range of part-time educational and vocational courses such as bricklaying, woodwork, painting, decorating, and gardening.

Ventilation Concerns

In 2018, Durham Prison drew negative attention for its poor ventilation systems during a summer heatwave. Conditions inside became stifling, prompting Eric Allison of the Prisoners’ Advice Service to issue warnings about potential riots across UK prisons due to the unbearable heat. According to Allison, the prison environments tend to “kick off” more frequently during hot weather because they function essentially “like ovens.”

What is Durham Prison Like?

Documentaries and Media Exposure

Durham Prison was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, which uncovered rampant drug use and contraband activities among inmates. The documentary provided a bleak look at the daily challenges faced by prison staff, including the widespread use of illegal substances and smartphones. This exposure made it evident that the facility is struggling to reduce re-offending rates among its inhabitants.

Inspection Reports and Safety Concerns

An official inspection conducted in October 2016 reported that safety levels at Durham Prison had not met the expected standards. Inmates indicated feeling less secure compared to previous surveys, and the quality of available work, educational opportunities, and skill-building had noticeably deteriorated. Reception and initial settlement arrangements for new inmates were inconsistently managed and frequently substandard. Overcrowding and lack of proper equipment in many cells were additional issues raised.

What is Durham Prison Like?

What is Durham Prison Like?

Unfortunate Incidents

In a disturbing incident, Mark Graham Smith, an inmate who had confessed to murder, was found dead in his cell in 2018. His death added to growing concerns about inmate safety and wellbeing within the facility.

The Reality of Incarceration

Durham Prison has a rich history, having celebrated its 200th anniversary in August of last year. It has been home to some of the UK’s most notorious criminals, including Rose West, Ian Brady, and Ronnie Kray. Yet, the environment within the prison contradicts many media stereotypes; it’s often described as quiet and monotonous rather than violent and chaotic.

Durham Prison serves a unique function as the UK’s first and only “reception prison.” This makes it a temporary holding facility for inmates with short sentences, those awaiting trial, or those en route to other correctional facilities. It witnesses a high turnover of inmates; over half of the population changes every month.

Staff and Inmate Relations

Prison staff often forge deeper relationships with inmates than one might assume. These relationships can offer the inmates a unique platform for emotional and psychological support, which may not be available to them outside of the correctional system.

Ongoing Challenges

Drug smuggling continues to be a pressing issue, consuming a considerable amount of time and resources. Moreover, a report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2018 highlighted the easy accessibility of drugs within the prison. Violence, self-harm, and self-inflicted deaths also remain critical concerns for the facility.


Durham Prison is a complex institution with a blend of historical significance and modern-day challenges. While strides are being made in educational and vocational training, the facility faces ongoing issues related to safety, drug use, and adequate living conditions. It’s a continually evolving environment, striving to improve but still facing substantial challenges in today’s society.