The door shuts and there we are. We laugh nervous laughs, but then the lights go out. I imagine everyone is still looking around them with a little smile on their face, hoping they will know soon what’s going to happen. But we don’t see anything. The only ray of light comes from a roster in the bottom of the door. I don’t even see the girl sitting next to me. After about 3 minutes we are bored and one of the ladies decides to bang on the door screaming and laughing: “Let me go. Let me out!” The prison guard doesn’t think it funny and orders silence. Then we hear the door unlock.
The old prison of Melbourne isn’t in use anymore. The building next to it was in use until the 90s. Now we are locked up inside it as part of the ‘watch house experience’. Upon entering we had to stand with our backs to the wall. We had to do all sorts of things people who get arrested have to do; show your hands, check underneath your tongue, shake your hair, squat down, show the soles of your shoes…
If you got arrested during a wild night out in the 90s, you could have been brought here to spend the night. Each cel contained 5 to 6 people and at night prisoners were given a few mattresses. The cell still smelled and looked horrible. When we were allowed out, we could wander around the building. Five minutes locked up was enough for me, but some people spend 28 days here, waiting for their trial and then went straight to the prison next door.
One of Australia’s most notorious criminals was in this prison. Ned Kelly was, as many people were, part of a poor family. As the eldest son he had to take care of his younger siblings when his father died. His mum was in prison. All he could do was steal to live. Ned Kelly was a hero to many people. He was loved because he stole from the rich and gave it to the poor by organising parties in local pubs. By doing this, Ned Kelly could often stay at people’s houses and be relatively safe from the police.
Eventually they caught him after all. In Melbourne’s prison he saw his mum, who worked in the prison laundry. Ned was hanged here, while his imprisoned mum was doing laundry, just a few meters away. The graves are so unorganized it is hard to point out where everyone is. What is left from the prisoners, is a death mask. These were made to research the heads of the prisoners. They thought criminality could be explained by the shape of someone’s head.
I am glad I can walk out of this prison a free woman. I disappear in Melbourne’s rush hour traffic and hope I never have to stare at the inside of a prison cell again. Five minutes are too much already.