‘I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die’, Johnny Cash melancholically crooned in ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, but to get a one way ticket to Fremantle Prison only required much less serious crimes.
Is it weird to get excited over spending the day in prison? Probably, but I’ve always had an interest in crime, history, and criminal justice, and I find the convict penitentiaries of Australia fascinating. I was heading to Perth for work, and decided to stay in West Australia a bit longer to explore Fremantle and Rottnest Island.
Featuring prominently in Fremantle, atop the highest hill, Fremantle Prison can be found. It’s a large and imposing structure that is impossible to miss. The prison, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built by convict labour from 1852-1859. Yes, convicts were shipped over from England, often for the most minor of crimes, and then forced to build their own prison, knowing the limestone structure they built would eventually contain them. A day in the life consisted of a 4:30 am wake-up, hours of manual labour, building infrastructure in the local areas, obligatory religious services, sparse meals, and extremely small cells, furnished with only a rope hammock bed.
Perhaps one silver lining for convicts was that they could often earn their freedom early, from good behaviour. A ticket of leave, as it was called, would allow the convict their release. They could stay in the area and build a new life for themselves, free from the life they left behind in England. That being said, it was no easier then than it is now for former prisoners to find work, so not sure how easy life would have been, even after release.
The prison continued to be operational until 1991. After a series of riots, uninhabitable conditions, and public pressure, the prison was finally shut down. A new facility was then built in the area, leaving Fremantle to become a museum. As you can imagine, almost 150 years of incarcerations in miserable conditions was a rough way to live. Imagine soft limestone walls, a mecca for rats and insects, scorching hot summers and cold winters, and no internal plumbing in the cells, even up until the closure, not to mention you are living in a pressure cooker with thousands of other men (and women) who are no happier with the conditions than you are.
Note: Women were incarcerated for particularly sad reasons, including idleness, drunkenness, and prostitution. A YHA (Youth Hostel) is actually now also on site, and guests can spend the night in cells/rooms that used to house female prisoners. I didn’t try it, but I’m sure it would be a unique experience.
43 men, and one woman, were hanged at Fremantle, and countless others suffered ill health, floggings, and violence at the hands of other inmates.
The best way to see the prison, and to hear the stories of its most infamous, eclectic, and dangerous inmates, is via a prison tour. Without a tour, you can only visit a small section of the facility, outside of the main gate. The tours are definitely worth it, even if you’re on a tight budget.
The offered tours include day and evening walking tours, and even an underground tour through the tunnels of the prison- if you’re interested in this one, wear closed-toe shoes, and don’t be claustrophobic. I checked out the Doing Time and the Great Escapes Tour, although I would’ve loved to have time for the evening ghost tour- next time!
Doing Time Tour
The Doing Time tour provides a great overview into the prison’s history, and runs about 75 minutes. You’ll get to see a range of cells, from convict to modern times, the exercise yard, kitchen, chapel, and solitary confinement cells. If you only have limited time, but want to see as much of the prison as possible, this is a great option. The tour guides are incredible and fit a wealth of information and history into the tours.
Great Escapes Tour
Great Escapes highlights, (obviously) escape attempts at the prison throughout the years. Climb up to the guard tower, visit the women’s prison wing, and see additional cells and public rooms not including in the Doing Time tour. This tour probably covers less ground, physically, compared to Doing Time, but was incredible in terms of the fascinating, and unbelievable-but-true stories. I won’t go into the details, but definitely check this tour out for larger than life stories of former prisoners. It also runs about 75 minutes. I would definitely recommend making time for both tours, if you can.
A day at Fremantle gives an insight into Australia’s colonial past, and is only a small snapshot into the injustices that occurred at this point in Australian history.
Know Before You Go
- The Doing Time Tour takes you into the gallows, where hangings occurred throughout the prison’s existence, and you also see the ‘whipping pole’. The gallows especially can be very disturbing. I felt like I could literally feel the evil and negativity when walking into the room. A noose (never used) is still in place, as is the trap door that opens below. You can wait outside during this part of the tour, however you might want to skip this tour altogether if you have young children, or are especially sensitive to such things.
- On the Doing Time Tour, a number of cells are opened that have been painted by their former occupants. Once the decision was made to close the prison, some inmates were allowed to paint the walls, as a form of art therapy. Try to keep an eye out for these, as they are a fascinating window into the individuals who lived here.
- There’s a small cafe on the premises, which was the perfect place to grab a snack between tours. That is, if stories of incarceration, executions, and murder don’t put you off your lunch.
- The tour guides are incredible, with a massive range of knowledge. I was enthralled by the stories of the prison and could have happily stayed all day.
- If you want to learn more about Australian convict history, Old Melbourne Goal and the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania are great places to visit.
- All admission fees can be found here. The cost, as of Nov 2017, for both tours was $30.00. A good deal, since the tours were individually $21.00 each.
Just down the hill from the prison, the stunning West Australian coastline can be found. The sparkling Indian ocean can be seen in the horizon from parts of the prison, which must have been torture to those confined…
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
(The writer visited Fremantle as a full-paying guest, and received no compensation for this review- all opinions are her own.)