Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fremantle Prison

We celebrated the first day of the year by traveling to Perth's biggest historical attraction, Fremantle Prison. Constructed from 1851 to 1859, it was built from limestone rocks cut out of the hills on site. All this was done by the first prisoners of the facility. That's right, they made them build their own prison.

Fremantle was the largest whaling port in the Indian Ocean during the 1800s. At first, Fremantle Prison was the site where the convicts were sent. These were men that were convicted of crimes in Great Briton that were sent to Australia as punishment to be used as forced labor, i.e. slaves, for the duration of their sentence. The site of the prison started as a large, limestone hill. The hill was carved out, and limestone harvested, shaped, and used to construct the prison by the convicts. After it was built, the prison was used to hold Australian criminals. It mostly held men, but also had a women’s building as well. By men it meant officially males 13+ years, however, records show that boys as young as 8 were held there next to murderers and sex offenders. It’s hard to imagine that such a place was still being used as recently as 1991.

This is the kitchen. A cook was the best job you could get as a prisoner, because it meant you knew what was in your food. The prison continued a tradition of the British Navy, since aboard their ships was how most prisoners arrived in Australia. Every Friday was fish and chips day, a tradition that is still honored around the world, including at Greg's office. He had never really thought about before, but there you go.

There was a small church on the prison grounds so that the prisoners might repent their sins. The murals on the back wall had an interesting story. The warden wanted the ten commandments and other holy scripture painted on the back wall, but since it would take almost two years to get the paint by boat from England, one of the inmates had an idea. He consulted with some local Aboriginal artists, made paint using their ancient Aboriginal methods, and painted the walls. That was over a hundred years ago, and the paint is still as vivid now as it was then. It has needed no touching up or restoration in that time, even in the Australian sun. Amazing. Clearly the Aboriginals know things we still don't.

Measuring 1.2 meters by 2.1 meters, this was an inmate's cell in 1852. Rainwater was collected in tanks on the roof and brought to the prisoners in buckets. This is why the prisoners were happy to be out in the yards all day building the walls and roads around them. It beat being confined to this.

In 1899, the Royal Commission determined that the cells were inhumane, and knocked down adjoining walls, doubling the room size for each inmate.

However, that cut the number of prisoners the facility could hold in half. In 1960, they ran out of space, so bunk beds were installed in each room, essentially returning the living space per inmate to what it was originally.

Aside from the terrible living conditions, why was this place so terrible? Mostly because they never bothered to update the 1850's construction. Insulation, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing were not added to any part of Fremantle Prison until after it was shut down. Prisoners were given a bucket to use as a toilet, a situation that did not change when inmates began sharing a room. Perth and the surrounding areas were going through a sweltering heat wave during our visit. The daytime high was 40+ degrees C (100+ degrees F). Our tour guide told us that during a heat wave like we were experiencing, the temperatures inside the cells would range between 50-55 degrees C (122-131 degrees F). It took 2 years after the facility was closed to get the smell out. On top of that, the soft limestone walls that formed the cells were the perfect breeding grounds for insects. This meant that at all times of the year, the walls were literally crawling with millions (not exaggerating) of cockroaches and other insects. Fremantle Prison was shut down in 1991, 80 years after it was declared condemned and unfit for human habitation.

Until 1991, it was prohibited to paint on the walls. The only exception made prior to this was for an inmate known as Peg-leg Pete for "therapeutic reasons." They didn't elaborate. He was an extraordinarily talented artist. However, our tour guide reminded us that, behind the mind of that artist lived a monster guilty of some of the most violent, abhorrent crimes against women. He then told us that Peg-leg Pete is 68 and still alive today. He lives in a small town not far from Fremantle, and his every movement is watched by the authorities. That is seriously disturbing that he is, 1. Still that young and 2. Technically a free man.

In the last 12 months of the Prison's operations some prisoners were granted permission to paint on the cell walls and on the walls of the exercise yards, as a farewell gesture. Here's one by an Aboriginal inmate.

The solitary confinement cells. This is where inmates went both for further punishment during their sentence and the night before their execution to help them contemplate their fate and find repentance. The only light came from the small window in the wall. Gruesome. Greg is sad in this picture because, 1. He is in solitary confinement and 2. They put the baby in a corner.

This was the stockade used to punish prisoners by whipping with a cat of nine tails. The boy here demonstrating the position was volunteered by his younger brothers. The prison had a punishment policy. If you were sentenced to a 100 lashings, you would get a hundred lashings. Now, a doctor would be on hand, since a cat of nine tails is such a brutal weapon. After about 10 strokes a prisoner would not have any skin left on their back. From anywhere from 15 to 25 lashes the whipping would have to be stopped or the prisoner would die of loss of blood. At that point, salt would be rubbed into the unconscious prisoner's wounds to prevent infection and he would be taken to the doctor to recover. About six weeks later, when he had sufficiently healed, the whippings would be resumed. This process would repeat until the full 100 lashings punishment had been reached. That is the most brutal, hardcore thing I have ever heard.

And this is where the prisoners went to die. Death row criminals were hung, and over 40 inmates died in this room. It may have just been the heat and the noise in the small room, but Immy started crying almost immediately upon entering. Greg took her outside.

After the guided tour there is a small museum you can walk through which had some interesting facts. This is a bust of the Irish prisoner, John Boyle O'Reilly, who was one of the few men to successfully escape. He caught a boat to America where he enjoyed a successful career as a newspaper editor before dieing of an overdose of sleeping medicine.  

In comparison to Port Arthur, which seemed to be populated by people who had committed nothing more than a misdemeanor, Fremantle was used for the worst of the worst. Even then, it still seems inhumane. While depressing due to the subject matter, this was an incredible experience. We all agreed afterwards that while none of us had expected it to be, this was one of the highlights of our trip. Our tour guide was amazing, and had so many fascinating stories. Many of the tour guides (not ours) are actually former prison guards, so they have many tales of first-hand experiences. We still can't believe this place was running in 1991. If you ever go to Perth, this really should be on your must-do list.

After our trip to prison we went out for lunch in Fremantle to chill out and decompress. Immy was pretty excited about it.

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