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Ninety-six inmates of Britain’s oldest prison – owned by Prince William – are being evacuated over fears of radon poisoning, Byline Times can reveal.
Cells in two of the six wings at 215-year-old HMP Dartmoor, which the Government rents from the Prince’s £1bn Duchy of Cornwall estate, are putting prisoners at risk of “prolonged exposure” to the radioactive gas, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed.
A spokesperson told this newspaper: “A small number of prisoners are being relocated as a precautionary measure after routine testing revealed higher than normal levels of radon.”
Radon is the UK’s second biggest cause of lung cancer behind smoking, claiming 1,000 lives a year. The colourless, odourless, gas is present at the 686-prisoner jail due to the decay of uranium in the granite of its bedrock and walls built using the igneous material.
No inmates or staff are said to have suffered adverse health effects at HMP Dartmoor, which houses a museum attraction in its old dairy, visited by 35,000 tourists a year who pay £4 per adult to enter.
However, the prison’s main “induction room” – through which all new prisoners pass during a two-week arrivals process – was closed last year following a negative report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published in June. Such action is only taken when radon exceeds a technical measurement of 200 Bq/m3, which equates to ten times the level found in the average home.
The evacuation of Dartmoor’s E and F Wings follows several years of radon monitoring and comes in spite of the introduction of additional airflow and ventilation measures to combat the problem.
Byline Times understands that pumps are now to be installed under the Category C prison in Princetown, Devon, to extract the radon and eventually allow the cells to return to regular use.
It is not clear whether Prince William’s Duchy of Cornwall as landlord will finance the work or whether the burden will fall on taxpayers. In the private rental sector, such costs normally fall on landlords under the Housing Act 2004, however the MoJ says this information is not “readily accessible”.
HMP Dartmoor was set to close in 2023 due to its underfunded and crumbling state before a Government U-turn in 2021 saw it win a reprieve to continue operating.
Staff shortages had previously led to prisoners being locked in for up to 23 hours a day, with a lack of capital investment causing “safety and security issues for prisoners and staff”, according to the MoJ.
The MoJ is declining to say for security reasons where prisoners will be moved, but it is another headache for the beleaguered department, which has overseen a sharp rise in inmate numbers since 1990 – a situation described by prisons inspector Charlie Taylor in December as a “time bomb”.
A source with knowledge of the situation told Byline Times: “Dartmoor is known for its granite, and the radon it emits. The gas builds up indoors, especially in areas with bad ventilation like Napoleonic-era cells.
“Lack of staff caused by the pandemic meant men spending even more time than usual in their cells, breathing toxic gas. There have been serious worries about the potential health impacts.
“It all raises questions about the suitability of HMP Dartmoor as a place of correction and rehabilitation.”
HMP Dartmoor was originally built in 1809 to house prisoners from the Napoleonic War. Inmates have included the Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera, and East End gangster Jack “The Hat” McVitie.
In 2013, the Government announced the facility was to shut in an overhaul of the penal system to make way for a new £250m “super-prison” in Wrexham, north Wales.
Officials at the time said the jail, which houses prisoners including sex offenders who are not expected to make a determined escape attempt, had no “long-term future in a modern, cost-effective prison system”.
However, HM Prison Service scrapped the plan in 2019 and in 2022 signed a new lease with its owner, the Duchy of Cornwall, to keep HMP Dartmoor open “beyond 2023 and for the foreseeable future”.
The source added: “Dartmoor is infamous as one of the worst jails in the country. It is falling down and its walls are made of thick granite.
“Fixing the radon issue will be expensive at a time when HMP Dartmoor desperately needs other investment.”
Closing the prison would be problematic for the Government, which has overseen a record prison population of almost 90,000 people in England and Wales, up eight per cent on a year earlier, leading to overcrowding.
That number has doubled in the last 30 years as a result of longer criminal sentences and a tougher approach to violent and drug-related crime. It is forecast to potentially exceed 100,000 in the next few years.
Prisoners are already increasingly forced to double up in cells “designed by the Victorians for one person”, warned Mr Taylor.
Analysis by The Independent in October revealed that 78 out of 124 jails in England and Wales were over capacity.
Last October, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk announced offenders given jail sentences of less than a year will usually see those sentences suspended and do community service instead, in an effort to ease prison overcrowding.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has paused all “non-critical maintenance work” on Britain’s jails.