Pentridge Prison Open Day

Good Mrs and I went to jail last Saturday, to Pentridge Prison in Coburg north of Melbourne.

The prison had a community open day, a family day, a far cry from how it would have looked while still a… brutal prison.

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You feel almost welcomed…

Pentridge Prison had a 146-year history when it closed for good in 1997. Which is not that long ago, really… The prison is convict built and housed just about anybody caught up in the justice system. Known for brutality and suffering for long periods of time, it has also seen many attempts at reform. But Pentridge Prison was built for punishment, not for rehabilitation.

Some prisoners worked in industries such as the bakery, printery, tailor’s shop, woolen mill and from 1962, car number-plate manufactory, amongst other trades.

Pentridge Prison has seen its share of infamous criminals over the years. For example, Mark “Chopper” Read, immortalised through that movie featuring Eric Bana, did time here. So did Australian’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, and gangster Squizzy Taylor, depicted in one of the Underbelly TV series.

One of Pentridge Prison’s inmates, Ronald Ryan, became the last prisoner hanged in the state of Victoria in 1967 and indeed in Australia. Ryan was found guilty of shooting and killing prison officer George Hodson during an escape from the prison in 1965.

Here is an undated aerial picture of Pentridge Prison complex as it used to look.

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Did I mention that the suburb of Coburg once was named Pentridge? And that the locals wanted to detach themselves from the prison and got their suburb renamed? Who can blame them…

Family Day it sure was today. If you entered through the gates in the first picture above, you arrived at this. Food trucks, coffee, hay bales, free blankets to sit on, live music in a corner.

Saturday “picnic in the park” stuff. Can I use the word “surreal” here…?

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The prison blocks were split into “divisions”. “B Division” was for long-term prisoners with behavioral problems and today it was open for inspection via regular tours.

Huge interest among the public. I took this picture after we left our tour. No, we were early and only had to wait some 20 minutes or so before getting inside.

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Inside the “B Division” of Pentridge Prison now. Despite the prison not been in use for almost 20 years, the place was still creepy.

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Some of the cells had furniture in them. 2 prisoners per cell. Together in there for 23 hours per day…

We heard that some cells with toilets (not all had them…) still had toilet paper rolls predating the prison’s closure. In other words, toilet paper older than 19 years… No, I didn’t examine all of the cells to see whether this was true or not…

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As I took some photos inside one of the cells, this “comedian” arrived. He pretended to close the door and lock me in. Right…  Note Ned Kelly on the wall…

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The “B Division” block had 3 levels. You entered through that door below. There were also underground cells for presumably the worst and maddest.

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It appeared that the tour guides were old prison guards although our guide never said so.

Several of the visitors were also former prison employees. Like the bald bloke to the right of middle below. The tour guide acknowledged him as Cole and presumably retired, he still looked tough. Cole told some stories about brutalities and attempted escapes…

Other visitors looked haggard and could have been former inmates. We did not ask…

A visit to the outside to check out the panopticon ruins…

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Panopticon (that’s a new word for me…) ruins were 16 solitary “exercise” yards for 16 prisoners at the time. A guard was in the centre where he could keep an eye on all 16 at the same time.

Although the prisoners walked back and forth for an hour within one of those cages, the objective was not to exercise. No, we heard that airing out was the primary objective. A prisoner spent 23 hours a day in close confinement with minimum hygiene and the smell throughout the prison was horrendous.

There were 3 of these panopticons within the Pentridge Prison complex.

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Back inside, next stop was a large room for the prison’s religious activities. Not much evidence of that anymore except…

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…this cage in the corner. You would not see it, but there were stairs inside leading down to the floor below. What is it for?

Here is where the Pastor stood and delivered his message from God. The cage was for his own protection should the prisoners try something during the service.

A kind of role reversal. The prisoners on the outside and God’s servant on the inside…

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A final overview from one of the wings within “B Division”.

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After 30 minutes inside “B Division” it was all over. Interesting and unsettling at the same time. Half an hour was enough, never mind a multi-year sentence…

As the visitors were leaving, we were all given a piece of paper. What was that?

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Aah… A “Ticket to Leave”. We have all been “pardoned”.

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For a better photo opportunity with fewer visitors around, Good Mrs and I moved across to the “E Division” entrance. For that mandatory photo of grinning and holding up that “Ticket to Leave”. Need a stiff drink now to celebrate…

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Demolition and redefinition are in progress for parts of the old Pentridge Prison complex. The building of apartments, business complex with a hotel to come. Prison chic…?

Good Mrs and I never understood who was paying for all this. Entrance and tours were free. We thought that perhaps the property developer is drumming up interest and goodwill for his goods… But that is just a speculation on our behalf.

Perhaps a park or open space here…

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Yes, demolition indeed. A small section of the former prison wall and guard tower was left standing here but open on either side.

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After “doing time” and having our picnic lunch, Good Mrs and I walked to nearby Merri Creek Trail. The walk from there towards Melbourne CBD and home is much pleasant.

We needed a bit of green nature after all that grim concrete and bluestone…