Chiayi's Japanese Era Prison

Just before I headed to England for a month in April I went to Chiayi. I've been working on, (and am still working on) a few different drawings based on the city. I covered a lot of ground when I visited, and saw a lot. One of those drawings is a city map, so I had to go practically everywhere to survey for it. The next few posts here will probably be Chiayi related; there was a lot more of interest in the city than I expected.

A Little Tangent About Chiayi

Chiayi is one of Taiwan's smaller cities, though this was not always the case. In the early 20th century it was the fourth most populous in Taiwan. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a sizable settlement here. The city was quite prosperous for the entirety of the Japanese era, and only began to decline as political and economic power began to move northwards after the 1950s. I was surprised to find that historical sites and buildings stretch for quite a way beyond the downtown core. There are still a lot of old wooden houses and narrow streets, despite the loss of several large areas since the early 2000's. It's quiet, without much traffic outside of a few major roads. A fair few areas are a bit run down, but in a picturesque rather than a foreboding way. The local famous food is chicken rice, but of course like most "area specialties" you can find it all over the island. 

Chiayi's small scale historic streets. 30's art deco meets old Japan.

Chiayi's small scale historic streets. 30's art deco meets old Japan.

A lot of people seem to just pass through on their way to Alishan. The owner of the guesthouse I stayed in assumed I was heading there the next morning. I haven't met many people who've even considered visiting (even among some Taiwanese friends who are from the county but have never been round the city itself much). It feels like a west coast twin of Taidong city, and I loved my stay here.

Chiayi Prison


I had to visit Chiayi prison to survey it for the city map. I'd focused so much on that I had no real expectations for what the visit would be like and hadn't researched much. The first surprise came when I learned you could only enter at very specific times and be lead around on a tour (times posted at the bottom). I usually hate tours and like to wander around a place freely. The second surprise came when I realized there would be absolutely no English spoken or written anywhere within the prison. I suppose as so few international visitors make it to Chiayi no one bothered with translations.

The third surprise was that the tour was wonderful. The guide spoke clearly and I'd crammed enough prison related vocabulary in five minutes before to understand mostly what she was saying. The group was small and there were a lot of details that I'd probably have missed by myself. I'm gonna put what I learnt about the place here. There's a little information in English about it the place, but not a lot about what is seen on the tour. You'd need at least intermediate Chinese to get much out of visiting so I'll try and introduce it here! 

A Little Tangent on Prison Design

This structure is a bit of a prison design classic. Its fan-shaped wings and central towers enable easy surveillance using just a few guards. I've seen this design in prisons all over England, including the eerie Dartmoor Prison in my home county. It reflects a time where prisons were moving from a model of just punishment to one of reform. One important and innovative design in prison architecture, to aid inmate reform, was the 'panopticon', first proposed in the early 19th century. This was a circular structure in which a handful of guards (or managersin the workhouse version) could observe every space from a concealed room in a central tower. The inmates would not be aware whether they were being observed or not. The idea was that under the knowledge they could be observed at any time, and not know it, the inmates would self-regulate their behavior and fall in line. After years under this system eventually they would sustain this behavior on release.

Basic panopticon design and a model of Chiayi prison

Basic panopticon design and a model of Chiayi prison

Chiayi is not a true panopticon (very few true panopticons were built, see the Presideo Modelo in Cuba for an incredible example), as prisoners would often be able to tell they were being observed, but it certainly was influenced by these ideas. The wings lead to a central command room and there are concealed passageways above the cells. There's a fascinating book by Michel Foucault called Discipline and Punish that makes excellent reading on the subject and shows how these ideas of surveillance have permeated far beyond prison design (Taiwan's dense web of CCTV cameras springs to mind). Naturally there is debate whether these prison designers were more interested in reform or further subjection, but I'd check out that book and others before this turns into a huge essay. According to the guide this prison design is quite a rarity in Asia nowadays. There's only one other surviving prison built in this style, in Japan. It's certainly very different to Jingmei Prison, which I wrote about in this blog, but there are panoptic elements in Green Island Prison's 1970s Bagua Building.    

The Prison Tour

Chiayi Prison was built in 1922 and has changed little since then. A few more modern buildings occupy one corner of the compound but otherwise it's much the same as it was in the Japanese era. After it became extremely overcrowded in the nineties inmates were moved to New Chiayi Prison. Entrance is through a squat gateway that looks a little like a castle entrance. The first building has visitation rooms, the warden's offices, and a small photography exhibit. In an effort to make it a little more family friendly you can dress up in the warden's uniforms for photos.

The prison bars and doors are all quite ornate with a lot of geometric ironwork. The three main cell blocks radiate out from a small central control room. Above the door there is a shrine hidden in an alcove. This has the Japanese style roof I've seen on Shinto shrine buildings. It was put up here to keep it safe from prisoners.  


The cell blocks and workshops all have the thick woody smell of hinoki cypress timber. Combined with the peace, and the coolness of the interior, even on a hot day, it seemed like a relaxing place. It was easy to imagine it not being such a terrible place to be, until the group came across this nasty looking torture device, and saw the size of the cells. 

The cells are barbarically tiny and were severely overcrowded for much of the prisons operation. There is a more modern toilet now, but at first there were just buckets. The ceiling is a wooden lattice. Above the cells there is a corridor. Guards could patrol and look down into the cells through the latticed ceiling. Perhaps the prisoners could hear them, or perhaps they had no idea if they were being watched or not. The air in the cells was stifling. The ventilation grates are tiny and were deliberately misaligned to stop items being passed through them. 

At the end of the cell block is an infirmary with a small ward and dentist office. The set-up is as barren and uncomfortable as you'd imagine in an old prison, and the dentist's equipment looks terrifying. 

Bathe here, whatever the weather

Behind the cell blocks are a few workshops. While in the past prisoners would make garments for example, now they can be a little more creative. There is a display of sculptures made by current inmates in the newer prisons. Some of them, like the matchstick dogs below, must of taken forever to make.  

The other workshops have some more typical displays of prison items such as the toilet buckets and cooking utensils. What I really enjoyed though (somewhat predictably) were the models of Taiwan's prisons, past and present. Hualien's Star Wars space station inspired design and a rare look at Taipei's Japanese era prison were favorites. 

Hualien's interstellar battleship and the prison that used to be on Aiguo E Road in Taipei

Out in the garden there were some vegetable gardens and a peaceful pond area with some little pagodas. It all seemed quite idyllic until the guide drew attention to some steps leading down into a flooded tunnel. It just looked like a drain, but this was a place of punishment. Prisoners had to stand in the water for many hours, even in the middle of winter. 

The last part of the tour took in the small women's annex. It was in a building made of cypress wood, which I love the scent of, but the inside was utterly depressing. There were the visiting rooms and workshop, so far ok, the cells are a little better than in the men's block, but the really depressing part was the spartan creche for imprisoned mothers and kids. Apparently they couldn't see their kids for very long each day, and it must have been miserable for the kids growing up in a cell block. 

The visit to the women's block just about ended the tour apart from a quick visit to the prison church. You can only visit between Tuesday and Sunday for these time-slots, and you have to be punctual: 

09:30-10:30           10:30-11:30          13:30-14:30            14:30-15:30