Fremantle prison

Fremantle prison
West Perth, Australia

West Perth, Australia

“I’m stuck in Fremantle prison, and time keeps draggin’ on.”

I picked up two real books in Adelaide. Proof first that heading into a (discount) bookshop is a bad idea if I don’t want to spend money, but also that I have missed holding an actual book. The second is Queenan Country, an American writer (Joe Queenan-anyone?) touring and commentating on England. I figured being the other side of the world was the ideal time to read that with some perspective, and to be able to enjoy its insights. He suggests that the rule of sightseeing is to get the main sights out of the way in the morning, then do the frivolous things you really want to in the afternoon.

Castle-style gate to the prison, white sandstone.
Prison gate. Designed in a castle style, the idea being that it suggests security to the locals, keeping prisoners safely locked away.

I like the idea, but despite that, failed completely today. I got out for a run around 9, but as it was 8x1k with 100m walk break, it only took an hour-that thanks solely to an overlong 2k+ cool down-and damned near killed me. I lounged around, not eating, then headed for the station around 11. It occurred to me on the run that it would be easy to take in the nearby port city of Fremantle, but poor planning and a longer-than-15-minute journey meant I arrived starving and dehydrated. That puts me at my most indecisive, and it took a while to fix it.

Inside the prison; netting above the ground floor to catch items thrown, narrow walkways to cells above
Classic prison style. All based on the same template, essentially.

I did, though, so this is hardly a story of exploration. The prison is open till 5 and I was there at 2, time to take in one of the tours. There are some free bits, but essentially you’ll need to pay for a tour to see much. A friendly guard grabbed me and recommended the ‘doing time’ one. His warm manner and good humour sold me, and I was glad he was giving the tour-time did, in fact, not drag at all. 14 of us turned up when the bell rang, 1 Japanese and 13 English. “All that way for the cricket,” he laughed at his audience, accurately-the only time when a joke he made might have been better had he not been English himself.

The tour starts where prisoners would have started, sitting on a bench in the waiting area, with one of the group brought up, asked to bend over and not look round while everybody else laughs while the guide puts on a rubber glove. Next comes the shower room, before emerging into the bright sunlit parade ground. Pleasant looking on a not too hot summer’s day, though the prison was renowned for being far too hot in summer and cold in winter. The prison cell block building is big-it accommodated over 1000 people at its peak, British convicts there as working parties at first, and then Australian prisoners. Walking into the cell block, the first thing to notice is how familiar it looks – apparently all prisons are built around the same design. Not all, now, will have no electricity and no plumbing but still, you’ll recognise the floors, cell doors leading off them, netting to stop things being thrown and so on. The netting didn’t stop the boiling water prisoners used to incapacitate two guards in the 1988 riots, mind – they lived, after they were swapped for the food and cigarettes which were the only thing the rioters demanded.

Tiny cell, with a stool and a bucket
Cell 1. Death row. Prisoners were brought here the night before they were due to hang.

Conditions were not good. The walls are limestone, which becomes humid in summer and cold in winter. Electricity was added to the cells till 1981, and plumbing never was; first order of the day was to slop out, then queue for a wash and shave in the yard. The long cell block was subdivided some way into its life, giving four divisions. The first of those was for juveniles; on arrival they were now imprisoned with the hardest men kept in maximum security. Bad for any gentle flowers, worse for the hard cases, who could now learn from the best. Records show that although the minimum age was 13, boys as young as 8 were sent here.

On a happier note, when the prison was due to be closed they seemed to have a ‘wet playtime’* (I’m hoping you attach the same meaning to that as me) mentality and allowed the prisoners to paint the walls of their cells, and there are some fabulous paintings. They even have separate art tours from time to time, to do them justice.

Beautiful painting on the wall - orange, red and yellow-striped sky over trees.
In 1991, prisoners were allowed to paint the walls. The prison was due to be closed then.

Outside, away from the confines of prison cells, dressed up in one area to show how they appeared through the ages, our guard grew serious. First we headed for the solitary confinement cells to see how dark they were, and feel how quiet they might be when both heavy wooden doors were in place. Just outside was the whipping post. It’s a familiar tripod that has appeared in films, but the description was no less shocking for the familiarity. No one died from a flogging here, even if they were sentenced to 100 lashes. 100 lashes isn’t survivable. How to square that circle? Amongst those watching was the prison doctor, who would intercede when a prisoner was at risk of death. 20 lashes in, perhaps. They’d have salt rubbed into their wounds and then be taken to the infirmary. Once recovered sufficiently, back they’d come for the next part of their sentence. The worst would not be the pain, it was suggested, but the way that this certain knowledge would hang over them.

My shadow, over a "No standing" sign painted on the road
Ha! Take that, The Man!

Finally we saw the execution room. Cell 1 in the solitary block was ‘death row’, where prisoners would stay the night before they were to be hanged. After their final chat with a priest and a brandy or whisky, they were taken on the short walk to the hangman’s lair. The guide’s description was vivid. Things happen quickly, the prisoner is hooded and never sees the room, four prison guards stand on the edges, one arm holding a rail and the other stretched out, not touching the prisoner, but ready to hold him in place should he start swinging. The noose is round the neck, metal block by the drawer to make the neck snap to the side and the lever thrown. That sound is shocking in the sudden quiet – the knowledge that it’s the last thing more than 40 people heard in that room is sombre.

*wet playtime meant it was playtime at primary school, but wet out, so we had to stay in. Out came games and the like; as a change from the norm it was always joyful rather than the tedium it might sound like.

The chapel, filled with light. Plaster has peeled from the top. A red curtain hangs over one window; two others have no curtain
The chapel, filled with light. Atypical of a prison chapel. The commandments are painted on. Rather than wait for paint to be ordered and sent from England, the prisoner who did it talked to the aboriginals. Despite walls made of limestone, absorbing rain and the heat of the sun, it is as vivid now as when painted, 143 (I think) years ago.

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