Insight on the Old Prisons inside the Gozo Citadel

The Old Prison, Gozo

Did you know that La Valette was one of the inmates inside this prison? Have you ever wondered what different type of graffiti are etched on the walls of this prison complex? What are those strange hands carved on the walls?

The Old Prison
The Old Prison overlooks Cathedral Square and is situated adjacent to the Law Courts building to which it was originally connected. 

The original entrance – from Triq il-Kwartier San Martin – led to three big cells on the first floor via a flight of steps.

Function
Although the practice of incarceration in Gozo started at least since late mediaeval times, the present Old Prison structure – albeit taking different forms in different times – was in use since the middle of the 16th century

It remained in use till the beginning of the 20th century.

Soon after their arrival in Malta, the Knights of St John started making full use of this prison by dispatching here their rowdy members.

The list of notorious inmates included Fra Jean Parisot de La Valette (later, Grand Master of Malta) who, in 1538, spent four months in the Gozo prison after having attacked a man.

After the expulsion of the Knights of St John from Malta, the prison remained in use.

The Building
In its present form, the prison complex is divided into two sections: an entrance hall and a free-standing block with six individual cells.

The entrance hall or communal cell is a 19th century addition reflecting the increase in the number of inmates at that time. Sometimes, incarceration involved hard labour.

The individual cells, overlooking a central courtyard and surrounded by a narrow corridor, still retain much of their original state.

The massive low doors with their heavy locks are also the original ones.

Having undergone a number of structural modifications, this prison was in use from the mid-16th century until the beginning of the 20th century.

Features
An important feature of this prison is the amount of graffiti with which the walls of the cells and corridors are literally littered.

This corpus of graffiti is considered as the largest one in a single place on the Maltese islands.

Most of them were discovered when the thick layer of white wash applied onto the walls for hygienic purposes was removed during the course of restoration works completed by 1996.

These graffiti provide a fascinating insight into the lives of those incarcerated here. It is interesting to note how these graffiti were made and what implements were used by the prisoners since they were never be permitted to carry knives or other sharp instruments.

The representations most frequently met with in this corpus of graffiti are those of ships of different types and from different periods. Sizes of ship graffiti differ from tiny ones, just 4 cm long, to others 120 cm long; the average size is 30 cm.

It is a common belief that, in the majority of cases, the left hand was outlined with the right hand. The custom of the upraised hand is a well-established custom going back to Phoenician times.

The Muslim custom is well-known and is still used in North African countries. In most cases it was only intended as a “memento”.

Other symbols found in the prison include a good number of Maltese crosses and other normal crosses. The majority of eight-pointed crosses are also found in cell number 5.

It is assumed that this cell was reserved for members of the Order. Here, one incision gives the date 1638.

Foreign names in cells or corridors are rare and only three Maltese ones have been traced. A prisoner might leave his mark but he preferred to remain anonymous.

Inmates scratched the date and some also a tally of their length of stay behind bars. As the length of stay in prison would have normally been counted, the scratching of vertical lines very often would have served this purpose.

Another symbol found in the cells is the design for the Maltese game of “trija”. It was one way of keeping the prisoners busy.

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