Updated 4:55pm, 1 Dec 2009
IN 2002 and 2003, artist and photographer K Azril Ismail spent time exploring the abandoned Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur, taking pictures of the cells and areas around the prison. He documented the scratching, messages, writings and drawings on the walls of the prison cells. These, he says, gave outsiders a glimpse into the minds of the prisoners and their time under incarceration. Subsequently, a selection of these photos was collated into Live Animals Inside!, an exhibition held in 2008 at Wei-Ling Gallery.
“Most prisons … have always been looked down upon by society as places of violent [people],” says Azril in a statement published in the programme booklet for Live Animals Inside!. “Through my intervention of such a space, exploring and documenting the very real existence of these cellular spaces with my camera, Pudu Jail almost seems like a sacred space.”
Unfortunately, not sacred enough to be spared from destruction. Demolition work on parts of Pudu Jail began in October 2009 to facilitate a road expansion and tunnel project. The iconic Pudu Jail was also destroyed to free up land for a commercial and residential development. Conservation groups, historians, and citizens protested, calling for the preservation of the more-than-a-century-old historical building, but to no avail.
Pudu Jail’s unique X-shaped main building hid behind a 384m wall that prominently featured a mural, on display along Jalan Pudu. The Guinness Book of Records declared it the longest mural in the world. The building was designed by then Public Works Department state engineer Charles Edwin Spooner, and was constructed from 1891 to 1896 at the estimated cost of RM327,627. It was initially used as an army command centre, but became the central prisoner of war camp during the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945).
The prison originally had a capacity of 600, but this was eventually expanded to accommodate almost 2,000 prisoners. Among its more infamous inmates was Wong Swee Chin, also known as Botak Chin, a notorious armed robber who was executed on 11 June 1981.
Details on the eventual closure of Pudu Jail are contradictory. A New Straits Times report states that the inmates were transferred to the Sungai Buloh Prison in 1995, while a conservation statement by a postgraduate scholar states that the prison was evacuated in November 1996. A report in The Malaysian Insider says the prison closed following the executions of Kevin Barlow and Henry Chambers, two Australians who were convicted of drug trafficking and hanged in 1986. The Straits Times report, on the other hand, states the last execution in the prison was in 1993; while The Malay Mail writes that the prison officially closed in 1996.
The conservation statement also says the prison became the Pudu Prison Temporary Museum in May 1997, and served as the temporary Hang Tuah Police Station in 2004. This is backed up by reports by the Badan Warisan and the New Straits Times that the jail indeed served as a prison museum that operated from 1997 to 1998. However, the Badan Warisan report says the prison was taken over by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) upon its shutdown in 1996, and operated as a detention centre from 2005.
(Updated) The Prisons Department of Malaysia, when contacted by The Nut Graph, confirmed that Pudu Jail was handed over to the UDA on 2 May 1996, but continued to serve as a prison until all convicts were transferred to Sungai Buloh Prison in November that year.
The tearing down of Pudu Jail marks a significant loss of one of the nation’s historic landmarks, preserved here through Azril’s haunting and poignant photographs. All photos by K Azril Ismail, and are courtesy of the artist and Wei-Ling Gallery.
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