Designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and constructed originally between 1806 and 1809 by local labour, to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, it was also used to hold American prisoners from the War of 1812. Although the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, many American prisoners of war still remained in Dartmoor. On April 6, 1815, 7 of them were killed and 31 wounded when guards opened fire at the behest of the allegedly drunk British officer in charge, who thought that they were attempting to escape. A memorial to the 271 POWs (mostly seamen) who are buried in the prison grounds has been erected.
Dartmoor Prison was reopened in 1851 as a civilian prison, but was closed again in 1917 to be converted into a Home Office Work Centre for certain conscientious objectors granted release from prison; cells were unlocked, inmates wore their own clothes, and could visit the village in their off-duty time. It was again reopened as a prison in 1920, and has contained some of Britain's most serious offenders ever since. It has a misplaced reputation for being escape-proof. These days it has lost its high-security status and houses mostly white-collar criminals.
There is a small museum of prison life, which is open to the public at some times of the year.
There is also a yearly charity 'Dartmoor Jailbreak', where civilians (not prisoners) 'escape' from the prison and must travel as far as possible in 4 days, whilst in convict clothing and without directly paying for transport
In 1988, the prison played host to a storyline in EastEnders, where Den Watts (played by Leslie Grantham) was being held on remand for arson. He was also joined for some of the storyline by Nick Cotton (played by John Altman), who was imprisoned for a different offence. The prison was called Dickens Hill.
In March 2008 staff at the prison passed a vote of no confidence in the governor Serena Watts.
On January 24, 1932, there was a major disturbance at the prison. The cause of the riots is generally attributed to the food, not generally but just on specific days when it was suspected it had been tampered with prior to the disturbance. There had also been other instances of disobedience prior to this, according to the official Du Parcq report into the incident such as a model prisoner attacking a popular guard with a razor blade and rough treatment of a prisoner being removed to solitary. At the parade later that day, 50 prisoners refused orders, and the rest were marched back to their cells but refused to enter. At this point, the prison governor and his staff fled to an unused part of the prison and secured themselves in there. The prisoners then released those held in solitary. There was extensive damage to property, but no prison staff were injured, although a prisoner was shot by one of the staff.. According to Fitzgerald (1977) "Reinforcements arrived, and within fifteen minutes these 'vicious brutes', who for some two hours had terrorized well-armed prison staff, and effectively controlled the prison, had surrendered and been locked up again".