The penitentiary began its history on 20 July 1772 with the laying of the building’s foundation stone. The mission of the building, as its name suggests, was to relieve the onslaught of prisoners in the prison at Špilberk Castle. At first, however, the new building became an orphanage, and only after its dissolution in 1784 did the penitentiary begin to be filled with prisoners convicted of less serious crimes.
Originally, the penitentiary had one floor and an adjacent garden. A wall and barbed wire in the windows separated the prisoners from the outside world. In 1779, the prison chapel of St. Anne was built on the premises. Over time, the penitentiary was divided into male and female sections. The female and male prisoners served their sentences by doing various jobs.
The appearance of the building also changed. In 1825, an inner transverse wing was added to the original four-wing shape, and in 1843–44 the complex was extended towards today’s Cejl and Bratislavská Streets. A new splendid façade was also added on Cejl with the main entrance decorated with Doric columns.
The beginning of the 20th century brought the reconstruction of the criminal court building and the prison, and at the same time the penitentiary was enlarged by one storey and the official house. In addition to the flats, which had been used by the warders since the building was built, additional living units were added for the head of the prison, as well as the inspector and the controller.
During the First World War, the poet Petr Bezruč spent part of his life in the Brno penitentiary, and after the unsuccessful putsch in the barracks in Židenice, the leader of the Czechoslovak fascists, Radola Gajda, also stayed there for several months. A particularly dark chapter of its history began to be written during the Second World War, when it was used by the German authorities. The Czech resistance fighters Alois Zavadil and Květoslav Kolařík were hanged in the attic of the building for partisan activities.
Unfortunately, the end of the war did not mark the end of the sad phase of the penitentiary. After the last shots rang out, members of the German population and Czechs collaborating with the Protectorate regime ended up on the execution ground. After 1948, political prisoners were brought into the facility; for example, the poets Jan Zahradníček and Zdeněk Rotrekl ended up in the cells. The lives of several other prisoners were ended by executioners. The current state of the prison chapel, which underwent changes at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s due to its use for ideological and educational purposes, serves as tangible evidence of communist repression.
We are already talking about the last years in which the penitentiary served as a place for convicts. In 1956 the gates of the complex were closed, and the convicts began to travel to the new prison in Bohunice in Brno. The abandoned penitentiary was first used by the Moravian Provincial Archive as its depository. However, its operation was severely restricted due to the inadequate conditions. In 2006, the archive was given a new depository in Bohunice and the premises of the prison lost purpose once again.
The appearance of the penitentiary has not changed significantly since the building modifications at the beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless, according to the conclusions of a structural and technical survey, the site is in better condition than it originally appeared. Therefore, at least to a limited extent, the prison can now be used by creative artists and for public tours.