David Whitley gets an insight into how prison life used to be in Western Australia – and vows to be a good boy from now on

If the Australian government really wanted to cut crime, then the best thing they could do would be to put Old Fremantle Prison back into use, and from there broadcast a reality show on prime time TV. From tax return ‘massager’ to murderous psychopath, everyone would think twice. Sharing a tiny room with a violent criminal and a bucketful of festering human waste - in 40 degree heat with no fan or air conditioning – is no fun.

Up until 1991, when it closed, this is what conditions were like at Fremantle Prison. Holiday camp it wasn’t, as you can see at first hand as everything has been kept intact. When it closed down, after lots of thumb twiddling, the State government decided to keep it open as a tourist attraction. A rather ghoulish one, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The refreshing thing about the tour is that there’s no romaniticising the prison life. You get the full details in all their guard-bribing, fist-fighting, drug-smuggling, soap-dropping horror. First up, we’re taken through the check-in procedure. We’re told how prisoners were stripped naked, had their belongings put in a bag, and were issued with the prison uniform.

As we’re guided through the chapels, cells and exercise yards, we’re bombarded with interesting titbits of information. Whether it’s the mundane stuff about how mail was read and luxury items bought or daring tales of escapes and riots, you get a real feel for the prison life. You learn things too – drugs being smuggled in through tennis balls being hit over the prison walls; the wing for non-violent prisoners being more violent than the wing for those up for bashing grannies; the wannabe artist who whittled his button into a pencil and covered up his incredible cell artwork with porridge every morning. It’s unexpectedly gripping.

What really comes across is the barbarity of the system though. Not from the prisoners, mind, but from the authorities. We’re taken to the flogging post, where misbehaving convicts would be whipped until they’re hospitalised, and then to solitary confinement, a hellish prison within a hellish prison. Eeriest of all though is the gallows. The last man hanged in Western Australia was Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer, in 1964. Amazingly, the death sentence was only abolished in 1984, but the tour takes you through what would happen if it still existed now. A rope round the neck, the sinister crank that opens the trapdoor, and you’re dead within two seconds. Strangely enough, silence fills the room after that.


ps Tours of Fremantle Prison run from 9am to 5pm every day, and candlelight tours are also available. You’ll need to book in advance.