There’s something compelling about jails. Perhaps it’s the sense of canned history. Perhaps it’s the view of a part of life most of us just don’t see – and don’t want to see. Perhaps it’s the freedom and uplifting of the spirits you get when you leave the place.
Old Melbourne Gaol captures all of these. It is steeped in history of both the headline and footnote variety. Ned Kelly was hanged in the jail as were many others whose story carried some renown – even if only as front-page news for a time. But the more interesting stories in many ways are those that cast light on more everyday people of the time. The children incarcerated simply because they had no parents and who following their first term in jail fell into a cycle that had them coming back again and again. The vast number of soldiers who were sent to Melbourne Gaol for being absent without leave – who knew that as the Second World War went on there were nearly 15,000 Australian soldiers absent without leave? The immigrants who were unable to understand what was happening to them even up until the moment they were being led to the gallows. All fascinating stories.
Then there’s trying to imagine life in such a place. Tiny cells with no light, thick walls and strictly enforced isolation. Punishment and breaking the prisoners spirit seen as the solution to crime instead of looking at the grinding poverty and deprivation that most criminals came from. And outside of the core conditions Old Melbourne Gaol does a great job conveying the utter powerlessness of those caught up in the penal system. Apart from any other lessons, this was a great way of pointing out to the kids what the real consequence of criminality is.
We were so taken with the Old Gaol that we also went on a tour of the Watchhouse. Until 15 years ago this was the place you went for the first few days after you were arrested. We had a very entertaining tour with a ‘police sergeant’ treating us as prisoners and showing us what it would have been like, stopping short at the cavity searches but giving a fair idea of the process and the way a prisoner is treated.
After a few hours of jail time, stepping out into a rainy Melbourne day was entirely liberating.