Museum in a Prison - Penjara Banda Hilir, Malacca
Classic traveling activities in Malacca City typically includes dropping by the A Famosa, roaming the Jonker Street night market or sightseeing around the Stadthuys, the usual. Having done all that, ever felt like going about a less typical destination? What about a short trip to a prison?
Prison courtyard (facing inside).
The subject of Malaysian prisons has never been too alien to us due to the many exhibitions conducted by the government around the country. However, a museum created inside a literal century-old prison is a whole different premise. Built in 1860, Penjara Banda Hilir is the second oldest prison in Malaysia after the Penang Prison. With this in mind and not a clue on what to expect, off we went on our trip to this gem of a place.
Original wall plaque outside of the prison, with "H.M." initials referring to 'Her Majesty', a common prefix to prison & jail names during British colonial era.
Penjara Banda Hilir (also known as 'Muzium Penjara Malaysia') is only around 1.8 kilometers from the Malacca city center's Dataran Pahlawan. The imposing building, recognizable through its tall barbed walls, is located right beside the traffic light junction between Jalan Melati and Jalan Parameswara in Kampung Bandar Hilir.
Map of Penjara Banda Hilir from city center.
Main entrance near the traffic light junction.
After reaching here and parking our car at the designated area at the far back side of the building, we had to take a bit of a walk around the outside of the perimeter wall to reach the front entrance. Interestingly, passing under the shadow of the stone structures and sentry towers gave a sense of scale to the prison and what life might have been inside even before entering the building itself.
Path beside the wall surrounding the prison complex.
A small fee of RM3/person was required at the registration booth (for local adults). After receiving our visitor tags and reading a bit of the material around the lobby area, we proceeded to enter the main block through a small opening of a massive metal gate (an intimidating introduction indeed!).
Once inside, we were immediately greeted by a dimly lit hall with small stairs that led to rooms on both left and right. These narrow rooms, with extremely high ceilings, heavy metal doors, and a small window each, were used as prison cells during the period when the prison was still actively operating. Feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortable almost immediately, it really took us some time to process that these rooms were the very places where some inmates spent decades of their lives in.
Ground floor hallway.
Individual cells with heavy doors and high windows.
Rubber buckets - the inmate's substitute for a toilet and water storage.
A prison cell used specifically as a washroom.
Cell door latch. The metal still strong and solid.
Adding a humanizing touch and a bit of melancholy, rows of framed photographs were hung in the hallway, capturing the self-expressions of inmates in the form of wall graffiti (or art, depending on how you see them).
Photographs of prisoners' graffiti.
Venturing further inside, we were introduced to the more gloomy features of the museum; a heavily fortified courtroom for inmate hearings, detention cells, dark isolation cells (used for especially agitated individuals), and finally, at the further end of the building, a two-storey execution room, complete with gallows, metal mortuary trolleys and a number of nearby cells specifically used for death row inmates.
*Some of these areas were not photographed due to restrictions.
Entrance to the courtroom.
Isolation cell on the upper floor (with mannequin inside).
On a lighter note, we also found the prison to be once well equipped with numerous facilities, including a main courtyard, praying room (surau), dispensary, library, kitchen, sports courtyard, mess hall, open-air washing area, kitchen, and phone booths for prison visitors, to name a few. Many of these areas now serve as exhibition spaces, filled with materials, tools, and furniture that were either originally used in Penjara Banda Hilir itself or brought from other prisons around the country.
Prison courtyard, with the modern-day Banda Hilir Police Station building visible across the perimeter wall.
Surau and dispensary building.
The prison was constructed in the mid-1800s under the authority of Colonel Sir William Orfeur Cavenagh, Governor of the Straits Settlements. Originally named 'H.M. Jail' (refer to the plaque photo above) the building's function was changed into a youth detention center in 1864, then known as 'Henry Gurney School 2nd Banda Hilir'. Described as a 'borstal', the center housed juvenile offenders in a condition that is stricter than other buildings that served a similar purpose.
Hallway that connects the inmate cell area to the courtroom and execution chamber.
The detention center, which had a capacity of 30 - 35 inmates and 25 staff, housed offenders under the age of 21 for a range of crimes, including theft, robbery, extortion, and even murder. A prevalence of gang culture was said to be a common issue during those times, a social problem that was attributed to lack of childhood education and unemployment. The detention center served as a protective shield in preventing the vulnerable youths from being further influenced by more senior inmates in other full-scale prisons.
After operating as a detention center for nearly 130 years, the building was officially upgraded to a full prison in 1990. Its last batch of 52 juvenile inmates was transferred to the Henry Gurney School in Teluk Mas on 11th June 1990, and replaced by 16 adult inmates from the Seremban Prison the next day. Penjara Banda Hilir continued to operate as a prison for another two decades.
Dispensary with old beds.
Pudu Jail gate artifact, preserved and displayed at Penjara Banda Hilir.
As part of efforts to increase awareness and appreciation of the Malaysian prison system, the building complex was finally refurbished by the Malaysia Prisons Department (JPN) into a museum and officially launched by the Yang Di Pertua Negeri Melaka on 20th November 2014.
As the only museum in the country to date that tells stories of prison life while allowing visitors to explore the real building itself, Penjara Banda Hilir seems to still retain part of its century-old purpose; serving as a stirring and imposing beacon of sobriety.
Sentry tower, courtyard view.
Info on Penjara Banda Hilir: Carta Penjara-Penjara - Jabatan Penjara Malaysia
Museum launch: Perasmian Muzium Penjara Banda Hilir Melaka (20/11/2014) - Kementerian Dalam Negeri
Officer-in-charge perspective: Kisah anak Melayu pertama jaga Penjara Banda Hilir (Mohd Aziz Ngah, 12/6/2015) - Berita Harian Online
Comparison to Pudu Jail: Challenge to create Pudu Jail Museum (Nor Shahid Mohd Nor, 1/12/2014) - New Straits Times