It is is arguably one of the most notorious prisons in the world. For more than 140 years Barlinnie has been a home to Glasgow's multitude of criminals and hardmen sent there by the courts to keep the city's law abiding citizens safe.

A reputation as tough as San Francisco's infamous former Alcatraz prison, it has never been far from controversy and notoriety.

More than one million offenders have been incarcerated within Barlinnie’s grim grey walls over the decades, either to serve sentences or await trial.

Situated in Riddrie, in Glasgow’s east end, Scotland's biggest jail hasn't changed much since it first opened its doors in August, 1882.

The prison mainly houses men who have been convicted at the High Court in Glasgow and the city’s Sheriff Court including those sentenced to life for murder. However most are serving terms of four years or less for less serious infringements of the law.

Concerns have long been expressed about the state of HMP Barlinnie, with the Victorian-era jail due to be replaced in the next three years.

Last month appearing before the Public Audit Committee at Holyrood, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said the jail was overcrowded and at a risk of catastrophic failure. The prison’s governor Michael Stoney made a similar warning last August.

Read more: Days of rage: Inside the Barlinnie prison siege of January 1987

After years of neglect, Barlinnie is expected to finally close its doors by 2027, once a new £400 million replacement is completed.

Over the years the jail has had as many nicknames as prisoners. It has been known variously as BarL, Bar Hell, the Big Hoose, or simply HMP Barlinnie.

One thing that could never be said about the jail is that it serves up "soft touch" justice.

However that was the accusation thrown when Barlinnie first opened its doors.

Then Queen Victoria was on the throne and Britain with its empire spanning a quarter of the globe ruled the waves. However the jail was making waves of its own.

It was hailed as a revolution in prisoner rehabilitation and penal reform when prisoners first moved into its’ newly built 'A' Hall. Inmates were given their own cells for the first time and offered classes in baking, blacksmithing, plumbing, carpentry and and shoemaking.

At one time in the early part of the 19th century the city had been home to eight prisons, all serving the local areas where they were situated. But by the time that the new "super jail" was proposed there were only two remaining, Duke Street prison and the South Jail on Glasgow Green.

The Herald: Barlinnie was seen as a more humane alternative to these two overcrowded jails which were bursting at the seams, with inmates housed in appalling conditions even by the grim standards of the day.

At that time the population of the city was booming, with a resultant increase in crime. The authorities identified a 33 acre farmland site in Riddrie which they bought for the princely sum of £9750 - around £1million today. At the time it seemed ideal for the purpose.

Today the jail sits in the middle of a busy built up residential area surrounded by large numbers of flats, houses, shops and other buildings. Then Riddrie was considered a country location, a far distance from the teeming city-centre tenements where crime was on the increase. The Monklands canal which ran through the area - near where the M8 now sits - provided a cheap and easy source of goods and services.

Barlinnie Farm, from where the jail took its name, was sited next to a quarry. There prisoners would work to remove the stone used to complete the remaining four halls.

Its then futuristic design was by Major General Thomas Bernard Collinson, architect and engineer to the Scottish Prison Department. When finally completed it became an imposing edifice on the east end of the city - a grim reminder of what lay ahead for those that broke the law.

Read more: Barlinnie's prison escapes: 'You're always looking for a way out':

The first prisoners arrived at the jail in August 1882, which was big news at the time. One paper, the Evening Citizen, reported how the initial plan was to have 800 offenders housed in four blocks. The reporter seemed impressed by what he saw and wrote: "It is built of light coloured sandstone and surrounded by a high white boundary wall, has a massive imposing aspect and can be seen from all directions for a considerable distance."

Then Barlinnie was seen as a new ‘superjail’ eventually replacing all others. The concept of prisoners having their own cells and being rehabilitated at the same time was novel.

Things went well with the new jail getting a good inspection report in its first year. The prisoners were reported to be in gainful employment and good health. Barlinnie even had its own hospital where a surgeon and matron were on duty. The food was described as of "good quality".

Of the 62 prison officers 19 were women another first. The idea was that the introduction of women officers would create a greater calm in what was then, as now, a hostile macho environment. There were also three full time teachers to help improve the literacy of inmates many of whom could not read or write.

The new prison had several other innovations, including married quarters for 39 prison officers to encourage good quality recruits, a gymnasium and its own church. There were also early concessions to health and safety with the men working in the quarry given gauze goggles to protect their eyes.

The Herald: Barlinnie was built amid fields and farmland in the east end of GlasgowBarlinnie was built amid fields and farmland in the east end of Glasgow (Image: The Herald)

By the time of its completion in 1897 Barlinnie was seen as a shining example of modern penal reform, showing that society could create prisons where the public could be kept safe but also treat its offenders with compassion and concern.

However even in the early days Barlinnie began to encounter problems.

The extra fifth block had to be built because the number of cells required had exceeded expectations even then. Most of the male prisoners had been moved from the overcrowded Duke Street, while the prison at Glasgow Green had already closed. Over the years Barlinnie’s shiny new image started to tarnish as it struggled to cope with the demands made on it by the justice system.

The first public signs of problems came in December, 1934 when the jail was hit by a weekend of rioting that resulted in 20 appearing in court. Things would never be the same again.

The closure of Duke Street in the mid 1950's heaped more pressure on what was now the city's one remaining prison. Since 1947 the jail had been used in all the city's capital punishment cases.

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Between 1947 and 1960 ten died in the notorious hanging shed in "D" Hall including a teenager, further adding to the hail's notoriety and hardman mage. Tensions again reached boiling point in the late 1980s over claims of brutality by prison officers, overcrowding, and poor food. The notorious practice of slopping out, which caused much resentment among prisoners and prison officers alike, was only stopped 20 years ago.

In 2017 it featured in a grim documentary by former EastEnders star Ross Kemp, who having spent ten days there said: "It's a tough place. It's a violent place. People have been killed in there.

In March 2019 the toilets in B Hall stopped flushing after the plumbing system packed in due to overcrowding. Inmates were handed buckets of water to manually flush away their waste - almost a return to the old days of slopping out.

In May, 2020, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben first expressed concerns, stating the jail was "no longer fit for purpose" after discovering rats in the grounds and cells which had been condemned 25 years ago.

Just as shocking was the 1,489 men she found incarcerated, almost 50 percent more than Barlinnie was designed to hold. In 2018, it was announced that the prison would close - once a new one was completed. Averaging 8,000 new inmates a year it was clearly taking far more prisoners than it was originally designed for.

The Herald:

Permission was granted by Glasgow City Council in 2000 for a brand new facility near the famous Provan Gas Works in neighbouring Blackhill. It will hold up to 1,200 of the country's most dangerous criminals and will be far removed from the current Victorian jail.

The future of the existing Victorian building remains in doubt.

The likelihood is that the prison or the land could be developed for a mixture of private and social housing. However Barlinnie historian and former Herald managing editor Bob Jeffrey has an alternative and believes the jail should be turned into a museum and could become a money-spinning tourist attraction.

Bob wrote a best seller on Barlinnie and believes that the imposing structure still has a future: "I've been to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and it attracts 1.4million visitors a year.

"There is no reason why Barlinnie couldn't be just as successful. People would love to see the cells where all the famous prisoners were kept as they can at Alcatraz.

Read the full series here: Barlinnie: The Story of Scotland's Super Prison

"In many ways, Barlinnie is as famous in Glasgow as Edinburgh Castle is in the capital with the same fascinating history. You could also use former prisoners to show visitors round as they do at Alcatraz."

Bob says that the jail could have an educational role, including tours for school pupils, that might deter them from a future life of crime. He added: ”It's hard to find someone in Glasgow who does not know someone who has served time in Barlinnie. I am sure there will be a fascination at seeing what a real life jail looked like."

Bob also believes that visitors to a Barlinnie museum would boost the local economy and reposition the prison's builders as visionaries, at a time when the public attitude to prisoners was very negative.

"Those in charge of our prisons at the time concluded that due to overcrowding in the existing jails a new and massive prison was needed. It was forward thinking at a time when the public largely could not care less about the inmates of prisons. It's to the credit of reformers that the plan for a new building went through."

Bob believes that the new jail must make rehabilitation its priority, concluding: "It is truly sad to acknowledge in 2024 that at no time in more than 140 years of existence has Barlinnie consistently held the numbers it was designed to cope with.

"What chance has rehabilitation really had in all these years?

"Any dreams the early prison reformers had of Barlinnie as a place where wrongdoers could be steered back on the path of on a productive and legal life were blighted by overcrowding. The fact is that the prison has been overcrowded by a factor of at least 50 percent year after year.

"The dreams of the 1880's, of a stable and manageable prison population, have never been achieved. That's something which is as astonishing as it is depressing."