The past few weeks of class here in Australia have been pretty hectic! We packed a semester long Global and Regional Sustainability class into three weeks- assignments and all. Two big papers, multiple field trips, seminars, a presentation, and hours of class crammed together in a short amount of time. The class was really eye opening for me, but I will talk about that in a different post. Right now I want to tell you about our break from our school work this past Wednesday evening, when the CIEE group and I went on a tourchlight (they call flashlights ‘torches’ here) tour of Fremantle Prison! We had to do something other than school work, right?
In the week leading up to the tour, I had been feeling stressed and anxious about walking through the old, abandoned building. I wouldn’t say that I believe in ghosts necessarily, but I also don’t deny the possibility. Paul used to go on the tour every time his students went- until strange things started happening. I love haunted houses, and corn mazes, and all of those fun events around Halloween, but I can only enjoy them because I know they’re fake- this prison and its violent history are real. So obviously, I was feeling a little bit uneasy about entering a building after the sun went down.
Kacy, Claire, Nicole, Prashant, Rhian, and I met up at the campus bus stop and headed to Fremantle to meet up with our program director. I was still undecided if I would actually be joining my friends for the prison tour, or if I would have dinner with them and head back to my flat. I messaged Joe asking for advice, to which he said “you should go! you have to take advantage of every opportunity while you’re there!”. 15 minutes later, we were getting off the bus in the middle of town. Paul led us to a food court area that served Indian and Asian food and gave us each a “food voucher” ($10 bill). I ate my food nervously, still feeling reluctant to go on the tour. Soon, we were walking up the hill to the prison, which was illuminated by ground lights that cast long shadows across the pavement. The sun was quickly going down and I was working up the nerve to do the tour.
When you first enter through the first set of wrought iron gates to Fremantle Prison, you end up in a courtyard area looking through the main gates that lead into the prison yard. Surrounding the area were limestone buildings converted into various museums, containing stories of prisoners, videos of the place and its inhabitants, handmade wood and metal tools and crafts, and more. We explored the information for a bit while Paul went and got our tickets. The tour guide walked to one of the doors to the side of the prison and banged on a metal bucket to get everyones attention, then announced that the tour would be starting and to grab a small black flashlight from the bucket on our way in. I grabbed Rhian’s arm and followed the rest of my friends inside, glancing back and giving an anxious smile to Paul as I walked through a heavy wooden door.
There were about 20 people in our tour group, ages ranging from around 8 years old to 60+. We gathered first into a small cold room with benches where the prisoners were received and processed. Our tour guide gave us a little bit of a history of the place and asked us to keep an open mind- there have been many supernatural experiences here in the past. After the brief introduction, we filed through another door to the shower room. Hip-hight barriers separated the room into sections where inmates would have a few short minutes to clean off. We left the shower room and entered the prison yard where inmates had some time to stretch their legs during the day. To the right was the remains of a limestone hill that had been excavated by the prisoners in order to build their living quarters.
After walking the courtyard, we entered the limestone living quarters of the prison. In the general population section, the four stories were separated by large nets- put there in the 1900’s because of the commonality of suicide attempts from jumping off of the top floor onto the limestone ground below. We saw the various exercise yards, one of which prisoners were taken to for punishment when they misbehaved.
We also got to see the prisons solitary confinement ward, where inmates would spend up to 23 hours a day in total darkness, given nothing but a piece of bread and glass of water to keep them alive. They could stay in the same room for 29 days, and their behavior would be reevaluated. At the end of the hall was a single room, where the inmates would spend two hours before their executions. We were told that the guards would often give them a glass of whiskey to calm their nerves before their time came.
The gallows were one of the creepiest parts of the tour to me. Thinking about the people who had died there made me feel like I was intruding on a private and personal space. Everyone who was executed were convicted or murders and other awful acts against humanity, which made me feel even more ready to get out of that room. We went down the to the morgue next, where the bodies of the deceased were taken.
This room smelled musty and dirty, despite the fact that it hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in over 25 years. Throughout the prison and at each stop along the way we were given a description of what each room was used for and histories of prisoners and people who lived there. We learned about the guards that worked there, the inmates that called the place home, and about the practices and processes used there. Sanitation was terrible, spaces were cramped, and a lot of people died. For those reasons and many more, the prison shut down in 1991. This means that some of the prisoners that spent time there are still alive to tell about their experiences. These are the final thoughts that our tour guide left us with on our way out.
Overall, the tour was not as spooky as I expected it to be. The guides do a lot of explaining and the walking was intermittently interrupted by skits from other employees. It was really educational you could tell that a lot of time, effort, and passion goes in to making sure people have a good experience there. I’m glad that I chose to go on this adventure. I now have one more thing on my list of stuff I may not have done before coming here. Being in Australia definitely forces me out of my comfort zone, but I’m learning to embrace it more and more.