Can we have the Prison Museum in the heart of the city?



The Director General of Police (Prisons) has said that a museum for prisons will come up in Puzhal. This will have equipment presently housed in the erstwhile Central Prison premises which are slated for demolition to make way for several new developments. It is a most welcome development. However, the question uppermost on every conservationist’s mind is as to why the museum cannot be retained in part of the Central Prison premises itself in at least one block which can be preserved as part of the city’s heritage.


In 2003 the Government decided to close the Central Jail complex near the Central Station and shift the facility to Puzhal where there already existed a jail premises with extensive land registered in its name. Following this, it was also decided that the land occupied by the jail in the heart of the city would be handed over to the General Hospital and the Chennai Metro Rail Limited for their use. The latter have decided to locate one of the stations catering to the planned Metro service on this spot in addition to a commercial complex.


With the jail premises lying vacant since the shifting in 2006, the Government decided to throw it open to the public for viewing and visiting since early this year. Ever since, thousands of people have been flocking to the place each day, sometimes resulting in severe traffic blocks on the overbridge that connects the Central Station. It is however indicative of the interest that the public has in the Central Jail and its history. Available for viewing are various equipments of torture and punishment, the gallows for hanging and the cells in which several important personalities had been interned.


Overwhelmed by the response to this throwing open, the Government then decided that it would construct a permanent museum on the prison which would be located near the new jail complex in Puzhal. While the idea is good, the choice of location is not. It is necessary that museums be located in the heart of the city where they can be easily accessed. Puzhal does not fall within a tourist’s or even a city resident’s itinerary on any day and having it such a remote place will only mean that the museum will suffer from lack of patronage and will ultimately be given up.


On the other hand, if the museum were to be located in one of the restored blocks of the old Central Prison, even as the other blocks are demolished and the area developed, the museum could have splendid response. Located as it would be next to the Central Station, a (hopefully) restored Victoria Public Hall and within a stone’s throw of the Chennai Metro station, it would be ideally situated. In fact, the museum could be integrated as part of the Chennai Metro Station complex itself so that commuters and others who use the facility can also be tempted to step in and visit the place.


It is to be hoped that the Prison authorities will take a leaf out of the Calcutta Police’s notebook. In that city, a museum for the police has come up and it is situated not only right in the middle of the metropolis but also in a splendidly restored heritage building, the erstwhile residence of Raja Rammohun Roy. Here, in Chennai, with a ready made prison block at their disposal, the Police could think of no better spot.