Most people would struggle to associate a prison with good memories, especially one as notorious as HMP Wakefield.
The site, now horrifyingly known as Monster Mansion, houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the country, with serial killer Harold Shipman, who is believed to have murdered up to 250 people, dying inside the jail in 2004. Paedophile ex-Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins, Britain’s most dangerous prisoner – known sometimes as Hannibal the Cannibal – Robert Maudsley, and the UK’s most sadistic rapist Reynhard Sinaga are all currently locked up inside the disturbing site.
However, for 47-year-old Debbie O’Neill, the prison brings back memories of one of the happiest days of her life, after she held her wedding reception in the prison officer’s club on Love Lane 22-year-ago, directly opposite the jail’s intimidating walls. “It was literally down the side of the prison,” she told YorkshireLive.
READ MORE: Murderer jailed for killing two sisters is released – then strikes again
“As you look at the doors, it was literally there. It was practically in the grounds of the prison, it was that close.” The club has since been demolished, but on April 29, 2000, Debbie got married to her then-husband Craig Pottage at St Peter and St Paul’s Catholic Church, before inviting all their friends and family back to the prison officer’s club for their wedding reception .
“I had a friend who worked in the club and she booked it for our wedding reception,” said Debbie. “I knew it was outside the walls of the prison, but it was a lovely little club and it wasn’t that bad really. There were security cameras everywhere, but we got used to that. The staff were great, there were cheap drinks and it was a brilliant place to let your hair down.”
Photos from Debbie’s wedding day show her relatives strolling down Love Lane towards the prison officer’s club. The solid stone walls of the jail loom large in the background. Debbie has since split from her ex-husband and moved to a different area of the city, but she used to overlook the dominating prison walls from her former home de ella on Soho Grove, which was just a five-minute walk from Monster Mansion.
“I came from the other side of Wakefield, so I never really saw the prison before that,” she said. “But my ex-husband was from that area and we got the house there. The walls [of the prison] are absolutely huge. We used to walk up the side of the prison to get into town. It was less than five minutes.
“It was quite scary. It was really strange being so close to all the people in there. It was knowing who is in there. But my mum said you are in the safest place, because if anyone escaped they would be going straight to Wakefield Westgate station to get away.”
Debbie lived in the shadow of HMP Wakefield for 17 years, but for all the stigma that’s attached to the prison, she never saw anything that struck fear into her when she lived nearby. In fact, she has seen more high-profile police activity since she moved away.
“I never saw anything when I lived there, but since I passed my driving test I have seen armed police blocking the roads to get prisoners in and out,” she said. “The van would sometimes pass me with the prisoners in. It was quite scary to see that. I used to always think they are protecting all those people – but when you think about it, they are actually protecting us.”
A recent Channel 5 documentary shone a light on what goes on inside the prison walls. While many people would not dream of having a wedding reception so close to murderers and psychopaths, Debbie has nothing but happy memories of her big day. “It was an absolutely fantastic day,” she said. “It’s just a shame the club has gone.”