Usk had at least three earlier prisons – originally the Castle dungeons and later two successive “Bridewells” in Bridge Street. Building started on the present prison in 1841, only a few years after John Frost, who led the Chartist riots in Newport, was tried for treason. The musket-slits on the old gatehouse were not intended for decoration, but to allow the building to be defended against insurrection.
Starting as the Usk “House of Correction”, Usk prison became the Monmouth County Gaol in 1870 following the closure of Monmouth prison. In 1922 it was ‘mothballed’ until 1939, when it reopened as a Borstal, a role it continued as a ‘Detention Centre’ and a ‘Young Offenders Institution’ until 1990, when it was repurposed as a Category 3 prison. (Its sister institution, the Prescoed “Borstal Camp”, is now an open prison).
The prison was constructed on the then-fashionable Benthamite “Panopticon” pattern, allowing all the cell blocks to be viewed from a central point. From early on it had gas lighting and was designed to hold 150 male and 50 female prisoners. After the building of the adjacent Usk Sessions House in 1877, the prison was linked with the courtroom by a tunnel, which still exists although now blocked up.
The prison had no permanent gallows: the equipment used to be sent to Usk by train as a self-assembly kit. Following complaints by hangmen that the execution pit below the scaffold would fill with water, the gallows was moved to the first floor, opposite the condemned cell, with the macabre result that prisoners awaiting execution could hear their gallows being assembled. Usk’s most notorious hanging was that of Joseph Garcia, a Spanish sailor found guilty in 1878 of murdering an entire family in nearby Llangybi. Usk’s last hanging was in 1922.