Jailhouse Rock

A Torchlight Tour of Fremantle Prison on a cold winter’s night is not for the faint of heart. My flatmates and I were inmates of the gaol Friday before last. I was gleefully anticipating tales of prisoners digging their way to freedom at midnight. I’ve always liked The Great Escape. But Simon, our friendly prison warder – surely a warder shouldn’t look so nice – had other plans.

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“They say Fremantle Prison is haunted,” he said, after handing us little torchlight key chains. Out of a bucket that he later informed us was probably once used as a toilet. He also told us how prisoners slaughtered rats in the kitchen and how one inmate lost his finger in the sewage pit in the courtyard. He obligingly demonstrated how a person would have been tied to the flogging post and solemnly described death by hanging. Pity he didn’t have that bucket full of torches handy – some of us could have found a new use for it, I’m sure.

Fremantle Prison was a working institution till the 1990s, so parts of it are quite modern. It’s a large limestone structure, with several stories. If only they’d rent the space out to university students – I’m sure they’d make quite a killing in the real estate business. Some of the cells actually seem roomier than my own student accommodation. The only occupants today are an insane inmate who seems quite happy scaring visitors to the solitary confinement and a rather scruffy knife-wielding Irish murderer who hangs out near what used to be the morgue.

At one point, someone heads for a side door that opens invitingly into the courtyard. The front gate is visible in the distance. “Not just yet,” says Simon hurriedly. “I’ve got you for ninety minutes.”

As we pass from one prison block to another, we hear distant screams. Has another group encountered the suicidal prisoner who jumps off a parapet? We move on, past murals painted in the courtyard, through to the chapel with its huge plaque of the Ten Commandments. Simon points out that the sixth commandment reads “Thou shalt not murder”. It’s more politically correct than the original “kill”, especially with capital punishment being carried out in the prison. Finally, Simon escorts us out with the cheerful suggestion that we might like to do the Tunnels Tour next. There is a Great Escapes tour. This sounds more promising.

My Namibian geologist friend and I head for the visitor’s book, under the watchful eye of another guide. “Are you Simon’s lot?” she asks, adding helpfully, “Rubbish is spelt R-U-B-B-I-S-H.” However, we decide to write nice things about Simon in the visitor’s book – despite the fact that he told us horribly gruesome stories and didn’t save us from mad inmates.

We saunter out and wait for our tour bus to arrive. Floodlights throw eerie shadows on the prison walls. The outer courtyard has prints of old photographs of the prison. Of course, what my geologist flatmate finds most impressive is the rock.

“I think I can see fossils in the limestone,” she says, studying the gateway. “I wish I had a magnifying glass.”

I wonder if they’ll ever have a Jailhouse Rock Tour. That’s the one thing Freo Prison lacks.

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