During World War II, following the Fall of Singapore in February 1942, the Japanese military detained about 3,000 civilians in Changi Prison, which was built to house only 600 prisoners. The Japanese used the British Army's Selarang Barracks, near the prison, as a prisoner of war camp, holding some 50,000 Allied—predominantly British and Australian—soldiers and since 1943 some Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands in the then Dutch East Indies now Indonesia. Although POWs were rarely, if ever, held in the civilian prison, the name Changi became synonymous in the UK, Australia,The Netherlands and elsewhere with the POW camp.
Allied POWs, mainly Australians, built a chapel at the prison in 1944 using simple tools and found materials. British airman Stanley Warren painted a series of murals at the chapel. Another British POW, Sgt. Harry Stodgen built a Christian cross out of a used artillery shell. After the war, the chapel was dismantled and shipped to Australia, while the cross was sent to the UK. The chapel was reconstructed in 1988, and is now located at the Royal Military College Duntroon, Canberra. After the war, the prison was briefly used to hold Japanese and other soldiers who were held on suspicion of having committed war crimes. British soldiers were stationed there as prison guards.
In 2000, the prison was demolished and its inmates were relocated to a new consolidated prison complex in a neighbouring site. In view of its historical significance, the Preservation of Monuments Board worked with the Singapore Prison Service and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to allow the front gates of the old prison to be preserved and moved to the new prison. In 1994 Changi Women’s Prison and Drug Rehabilitation Centre was opened.
Presently, the new Changi Prison houses the most serious criminal offenders in the country, including criminal offenders who are serving long sentences and those who have been sentenced to death. It serves as the detention site for death row inmates at Changi, before they are executed by hanging, traditionally on a Friday morning.
Changi Prison is also one of the main places (though not the only one) where judicial corporal punishment by caning is carried out. Caning sessions at Changi are held twice per week. A former employee of the prison has been quoted as saying: "They are flogging more and more these days. Before they were doing maybe 60 on Tuesdays and Fridays, now they're doing a hundred".
Changi chapel, built by Australian POWs in 1944, later relocated to Duntroon, Canberra
In 1988, Singapore built a replica chapel (which was built by the POWs) and museum next to the Changi Prison. When Changi Prison was expanded in 2001, the chapel and museum was relocated to a new site 1 km away and the Changi chapel and museum was officially established on 15 February 2001.
Prisoners of war
Sir Norman Alexander Professor of Physics, Raffles College, Singapore, Vice-Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria. Helped build a salt evaporation plant at Changi and a small industrial plant that fermented surgical spirit and other products for prison hospital.
Geoffrey Bingham, AM, MM, (6 January 1919 – 3 June 2009), who returned to Australia and wrote several books reflecting on his experiences, including his conversion to Christian faith in The Story of the Rice Cakes,Angel Wings, and Tall Grow the Tallow Woods.
Russell Braddon, (25 January 1921 – 20 March 1995), Australian writer, who wrote "The Naked Island" about his POW experience.
John Coast British, (30 October 1916 - 1989), writer and music promoter. He wrote one of the earliest and well-known POW memoirs of Changi The Railroad of Death, (1946). Coast admitted that he and his fellow officers regularly stole coconuts during the night to alleviate their hunger. Other works of Coast include Dancers of Bali (1953), and Dancing Out of Bali (1954).
Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, commander of Allied forces in Singapore, following his surrender to the Japanese; he was moved to a camp in China in late 1942.
Sydney Piddington, postwar Australian mentalist entertainer with wife Leslie, "The Piddingtons" ABC and BBC radio and stage mindreading team, who developed his verbal code in Changi.
Rohan Deakin Rivett, Australian, writer (16 January 1917 - 5 October 1977) War Correspondent and Journalist with Malaya Broadcasting Corporation in Singapore. Formerly a soldier in the Australian Imperial Force. Although the British surrendered the island on 15 February 1942, he was not captured until 8 March, in Java, after harrowing journeys by sea and land. His harrowing experiences are vividly chronicled in Behind Bamboo (1946). The book, 392 pages long, was written in October–November 1945 while its author was recovering from the rigours of captivity; reprinted eight times, it sold more than 100,000 copies.