Putting prisons into perspective

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following article may contain the names of people who have died.

A couple of months ago I visited the redevelopment at Pentridge in Melbourne’s inner northern suburb of Coburg to check out the latest addition to the Palace group of cinemas (we saw the utterly delightful Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, in case you were wondering).

Outside the cinema, however, it was admittedly something of a jarring experience. Surrounded by the imposing bluestone walls and forbidding towers were people sitting around drinking beers, and shopping in a supermarket, while their children played in the square jumping through water fountains.

I’ve visited disused jails before – the fascinating Alcatraz, the chilling Port Arthur or the barely touched but utterly engrossing Geelong Gaol, which now runs ghost tours and hosts the odd theatrical performance. But this was different.

Read: Prison art around Australia

It all seemed a little surreal. It was only in 1997 that the facility said goodbye to its last inmate and ceased being a correctional facility for good. But now it was almost as if that whole slate had been wiped clean and all that was there to remind us of where we were sitting, enjoying that refreshing ale on a balmy Melbourne summer’s evening, was the ominous physical presence around us.

Photo: ArtsHub.

Thankfully, that was never the intention of the developers, however, and the venue has now opened for tours, with a series of immersive installations and experiences available to revisit the prison’s chilling history and learn some of the truths, unpalatable and otherwise, of its history – dating back to when it first opened in 1851.

Photo: ArtsHub.

In partnership with the National Trust and an experiential design and technology company called Art Processors, Pentridge has repurposed some of its spaces as sites for multimedia installations and history lessons.

Starting in the airing yard, visitors are steered by well-informed guides through certain parts of the facility where audio and visual wizardry reveals stories of the former inmates from their own mouths.

What is especially to be commended about the tours is that there is no avoidance of the most disturbing truths of the facility’s history, particularly in regard to the experiences of First Nations people who were imprisoned there. There are stories narrated by the late Uncle Jack Charles, himself a former inmate, and we also hear the voice of accomplished actor, director and TV presenter Rachael Maza.

Photo: ArtsHub.

Also open for visitors is the former Warders’ Residence and panopticon – one of only eight left in the world, designed to isolate prisoners in silence.

The most chilling part of the tour is the notorious H Division, which may prove fairly confronting to some as they are left to wander through the cells in their own time, to watch projections and listen to the voices of former inmates, officers and others who had experiences with or in the cell block. Many of the noticeboards have been left untouched with the prisoners’ original graffiti, scrawls and images on view.

Photo: ArtsHub.

Coming out again, blinking into the daylight, visitors will realise this is still no Alcatraz or even Old Melbourne Gaol. Unlike those venues that have been completely repurposed as museums, here with its dining and drinking establishments, cinemas and shops sitting right alongside the cells of ‘Hell Division’, a visit to Pentridge will remain a curious and even alarming experience. But maybe that’s the point.

Tours are available now, tickets start at $35. For more.

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