Fremantle Prison, Western Australia

Fremantle Prison, referred to as Fremantle Gaol or Fremantle Jail, is a former Australian prison and World Heritage Site. The 15acre site includes prison cellblocks, gatehouse, perimeter walls, cottages, and tunnels.

Initially known as the Convict Establishment, Fremantle Prison constructed between 1851 to 1859, using the convicted as labour. Significant changes didn’t show up before 1960s, and the government department in charge of the prison underwent several reorganisations in the 1970s and 1980s, but the culture of Fremantle Prison was resistant to change. Growing prisoner discontent culminated in a 1988 riot with guards being taken hostage, and a fire that caused $1.8 million worth of damage. The prison closed in 1991, replaced by the new maximum-security Casuarina Prison.

Since 1991, Fremantle Prison has been conserved as a recognised heritage site, and various restoration works have been undertaken. New uses have been found for some buildings within the prison, which has also become a significant tourist attraction. The process of obtaining World Heritage listing as part of the Australian Convict Sites submission focused historical interpretation.

The Fremantle Prison Collection contains around 15,000 items associated with the prison’s site, history, or the experiences of its workers and prisoners. Recollections have been recorded since 1989, and include the experiences of authorities, staff, volunteer visitors, and prisoners. The Fremantle Prison records and collections, including archaeological, provide a substantial resource for researchers.

The Prison Gallery showcases and offers the sale of artworks by current and ex-prisoners of Western Australia. It also hosts other exhibits related to the history of the prison, including historical artifacts. Painting or drawing on walls was originally forbidden, though graffiti, which could be viewed as art or vandalism, occurred throughout the prison’s operational years. This rule was relaxed in special cases – including, from 1976, long-term prisoners within their own cells – but only for work considered art and not graffiti. Art, or art therapy, was not officially permitted until the 1980s; graffiti was never formally permitted, but in the prison’s last six months, with closure imminent, the rule was not enforced.

Attractions include guided tours, a visitors’ centre with searchable convict database, art gallery, café, gift shop, and tourist accommodation. Educational activities are regularly held for school children, as are exhibitions and re-enactments of historical events. Functions such as theme parties and dinners are held in the prison, with re-enactments serving as entertainment. Tours of the prison show aspects of prison life and recount successful and attempted escapes. Sections of the tunnels are accessible, and night tours focus on the prison’s reputation for being haunted.

Fremantle Prison receives international and domestic tourists, as well as ex-prisoners, former prison officers, and their descendants. Tourist numbers increased each year from 2001-02 to 2009-10, up from almost 105,000 to nearly 180,000 over that period. While the tourist experience is based on authenticity and heritage values, some details are concealed or de-emphasised, such as prison tattooing, riots, and graffiti portraying revenge, sexuality, or brutality. As of 2014, the prison has won, been a finalist in, or received other commendation at tourism or heritage awards each year since 2006.

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