Historic print of prison, from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1834, New Jersey State Prison, Trenton, New Jersey. Library of Congress

Sometimes old prisons and jails are torn down when they have outlived their usefulness. But sometimes they have attributes that make them interesting or valuable for some reason and the structures are retained. In some cases, the old penal buildings may have new lives with other uses. 

Many countries have standards for evaluating old structures. In the United States, for instance, specific properties (or even whole towns, commercial districts, or neighborhoods) may be added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Most states have similar counterparts. Other countries have also taken steps to protect the cultural heritage associated with historic structures.

Government or similar designations of the historic or cultural value of an old prison or jail is often considered prestigious. Whether the designation also provides protection for the resource depends upon many factors.

World Heritage Sites

On a global level, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains a program to recognize World Heritage Sites (WHS). Although the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO in January 2019, there are still places within the country that are on the WHS list.

Among the old prisons and jails designated as World Heritage Sites are:

United States

Some old prisons and jails in the United States are part of national or state historic parks. Others may not be owned by the government, but are part of registries recognizing their historic or cultural importance.

On a national level, many of these historic preservation programs are part of the National Park Service (NPS), a division of the Department of the Interior (DOI). These programs are a great source of information about old prisons and jails, along with many other structures of historic significance.

Historic American Buildings Survey

The NPS Heritage Documentation Programs include the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), which is the oldest federal preservation program.

An example of an old prison that has been well-documented through this program is the New Jersey State Prison, built between 1833 and 1836, in Trenton, New Jersey. (At this writing, it is the oldest building still operating as part of an active prison in the U.S. 

According to survey notes, this project was an extremely significant work of English architect and well-known prison John Haviland, well known for his designs of prisons. It was the second prison built in the U.S. on the Pennsylvania penal system of solitary confinement, and the first building in the United States to exhibit characteristics of Egyptian Revival architecture (and possibly the first American building to directly influence the architecture of Europe.)

HABS documentation is managed by the Library of Congress and is quite searchable.

Landmarks and Historic Places

Two other programs are the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks listings.

The National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program is a designation program designed to encourage the preservation of historic sites. At this writing, there are 2,618 National Historic Landmarks.

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHC) is the official list of the historic places in the United States that have been deemed worthy of preservation. This is an ever-changing list as places are added and removed on a regular basis. As of January 2020, there were 95,355 places on this list.

Spreadsheets with data related to these lists can be downloaded for free. 

UK, Scotland, Ireland and Wales

In the United Kingdom, the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882 initially covered 68 sites in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (at the time the Act was passed, all of Ireland was under British control).

According to a Parliament website, the Act provided for the protection of some 50 prehistoric sites. After World War II, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 went on to begin listing buildings and structures of special historic, architectural or cultural importance.

Just listing a building often didn’t result in protection, though, so Parliament eventually passed the Planning Act of 1968, which introduced the concept of a “listed” building, a status which now carries legal obligations of care and conservation in the UK.

Listing and registering is now managed by English Heritage in England, Historic Environment Scotland manages lists for Scotland, and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht oversees the protection and presentation of Ireland’s heritage and cultural assets. Cadw, which means “keeping/preserving” in Welsh) is the historic environment service for Wales.

In the various countries, different designations are used for listed properties.


The relative importance of listed buildings can be determined by their “grade.”

In England and Wales, grades are I, II* and II; in Scotland, they are A, B and C (S); and in Northern Ireland, A, B+, B1 and B2. 

In England and Wales, Grade I buildings are those exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important. Grade II* buildings have been deemed particularly important and of more than special interest. Grade II buildings are considered of national importance and of special interest.

In Scotland, listing categories are A, B and C. Those buildings considered of national or international importance — or fine examples of a particular period, style or building type — are given an A listing. A B listing is given to those structures with regional or local importance. And C listed buildings are those of local importance or lesser examples of a certain period, style or building type.

In Northern Ireland, four grades are used: A, B+, B1 and B2. The highest grading (A) is only given to buildings of national importance, while B+ is used for special buildings that might have merited A status if they did not have relatively minor detracting features or alterations. Grades B1 and B2 are given to buildings of more local importance or those that are examples of some period or style. 


In Canada, Parks Canada maintains the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. It offers a complete list of federal designations including information on districts, buildings, events, railway stations, lighthouses and people who are of historic value or interest. 


In Australia, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment manages heritage programs that include World, National, and Commonwealth lists, as well as the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database (shipwrecks, sunken aircraft and other types of underwater heritage located in the waters of Southeast Asia or Oceana). The department also maintains a List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance (LOPHSA) to provide symbolic recognition of sites of outstanding historic significance to Australia located outside of the Australian jurisdiction and the Register of the National Estate (an archive of information about more than 13,000 places throughout the country).