Dunedin Prison, completed in 1896, is recognised internationally as a rare example of a purpose-built courtyard prison. Constructed from red brick with distinctive white mouldings and wall bands as well as cupolas and corner windows, the prison is a great example of the Queen Anne style of architecture.

The facility had cells for 52 male and 20 female inmates so was the smallest urban prison in New Zealand. In 1915, an administration block was added to allow police to operate from the building. In 2007, the prison was decommissioned when a new facility was opened at Milton, 54km (33miles) south of Dunedin.

Dunedin Prison (prison trust)


On October the 4th 1865, Captain William Jarvey was the first of four prisoners executed at Dunedin prison for killing his wife. John Jones met his end a year later. Chinese miner, Ah Lee followed in 1880 and Charles Clements in 1898. All were found guilty of murder and all were “hung by the neck until dead” as reported by the Otago Daily Times at the time. Their bodies were apparently buried in the prison grounds. There is also a belief that the bodies were eventually removed and re-interred under a tree at the Northern Cemetery to stop ghostly behaviour at the prison. I must say, I have been in the building and it did have a somewhat heavy feel to it. After the execution of William Jarvey, a person who claimed to represent the owner of a Melbourne wax-work exhibition was allowed to take a cast of the convict’s face and a local `professor’ of phrenology was also permitted to make an examination. At some point, the dead man’s head was removed and people have claimed to see Jarvey’s headless ghost gliding around the prison complex. Nervy policemen on night shifts in the prison had to negotiate the area where they believed the bodies were buried and claimed all manner of weird and creepy stuff happened.


The ex-prison has re-opened with a choice of 4 escape rooms. Redemption requires team work to escape the cell. The challenge in Espionage is to locate and capture a double agent. Outbreak involves stopping a virus escaping. In Riot, players must escape before the prison burns down. These games bring tourists to the prison who want to experience the thrill of playing them and to also experience the creepy atmosphere of one of the country’s oldest and most interesting prisons.


Constructed in 1874 out of 60cm thick concrete which was a relatively new material at that time, the building has survived in pristine condition. This important example of “Gothic Revival” architecture was built under the guidance of Benjamin W. Mountfort, who also designed Christchurch Cathedral.

Over the years the building has been used as a jail and a military camp. The prison was closed in 1999, when all Christchurch prisons were re-located outside of the city boundaries. The building lay empty until early 2006 when it was bought by a local couple who opened it late that year as the Jailhouse Accommodation. The Jailhouse is now a top-rated, award-winning, budget backpacker hostel and a fine asset for Christchurch City.

Part of the attraction for backpackers who stay here is the fact it retains an interior that hasn’t been modified for its new use. The cells are now narrow bedrooms. Because of the lack of space, double bunks serve as beds. Some of the larger cells manage to house two single beds. Curtains have been placed over the windows to soften the look. There is even graffiti on the walls left by prisoners over the years. A coat of white paint on the interior walls freshens the place up. Staying there, it is easy to imagine what life was like for the prisoners.


Like the Dunedin prison, a spooky presence also haunts Christchurch’s Jailhouse hostel. Staff and guests claim to have seen apparitions and heard voices mumbling in various parts of the building. Manager Taz Reeves feels a presence throughout the building, and has felt tugging at her T-shirt. Ghost Hunters Christchurch have investigated the ghostly reports, stating the paranormal activity did not appear to be malevolent. On one visit, the investigating team was excited to have witnessed an apparition in the kitchen, and a sighting of a man wearing a white jacket. There have occasionally been things moving unassisted and backpackers have said they’ve felt like they were being watched.

The Christchurch enterprise is not a novel idea. Britain, Turkey, Finland, USA, Germany and Switzerland all have repurposed prisons. In fact, there are 10 ex-prisons offering tourist accommodation. Unlike the Christchurch hostel, some have been lavishly converted to their new roles. I wouldn’t be surprised if the retired prisons in Wellington and New Plymouth are converted to tourist accommodations as tourism again takes off after the recent lockdowns. Afterall, people like the idea of sharing a night or two with the resident ghosts- with the knowledge they can check out at any time.

Ceidrik Heward.

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