Pentridge: Voices From The Other Side - A Photo Essay

 

Pentridge Prison

 
 
 

H.m. Prison Pentridge...

From its beginnings in late 1850, when sixteen men, each branded 'Pentridge' across his back in yellow, were marched out to the stockade, until its closure in 1997, this place saw thousands of lives come together, and, upon release, disperse in all directions. They shared an infinite diversity of experiences, not only with each other, but with past generations, too. In these cells, corridors, and halls can be found the remnants of an endless litany of love and hate, loss and discovery, friendship and conflict. Political dealings, petty squabbles, and grand awakenings were all played out here. This is where hundreds of lives ended in suicide in a lonely bluestone cell. Dozens more ended in a lost fight for survival or a sneak attack, bashed and slashed — a story repeated many times over. Blood, piss, shit, sweat, vomit, and tears have leached into the fabric of the walls and flooring. The drains and earth beneath this place have absorbed 150 years of it. There is no betrayal, affirmation, or epiphany that has not occurred here. And during all those years, from 1850 until 1997, life was messily split between criminal and jailer by bluestone and iron — the aim being survival as best you knew how.

 
 
Razor Wire D Yard. Pentridge. By Rupert Mann.png

Pentridge Prison was decommissioned on 1 May 1997 after 146 years of operation as Victoria’s central and most extensive prison complex. Over that time, its name had become a dark feature of Melbourne’s identity and Australian history. In 1951, D Division became the site of the last female execution in Australia, when Jean Lee was sedated, strapped to a chair, and hanged. Ronald Ryan was executed on the same gallows in 1967, and became the last man hanged in Australia. In 1958, Bill O’Meally received 12 lashings of the cat-o-nine tails in A Division. A doctor stood by to ensure Bill didn't die, and that he was conscious throughout.  This would be the last time a man was flogged in Australia. After a long and bloody life in this country, these brutal punishments, born in Britain, died at Pentridge.

 By the time of its closure, Pentridge could tell the complete story of our prisons - from the days of transportation to the new-generation prisons of today. And, like no other place, it could also tell an inverse history of our country and ourselves.

B Division 11. Pentridge. By Rupert Mann.png
 

 

The book provides a photographic portrait of one of Australia’s most infamous prisons, and the society that needed it, from the perspective of those who lived and worked there. Between its closure in 1997, and when development took off around 2012, the prison was at a brief pause in its history. This was a specific moment that will not come again. It was in a limbo between being a fiercely guarded maximum-security prison and whatever it would be developed into. The extreme control and original purpose of the place stood in contrast to its neglect. 

 

The lack of maintenance and care had created a photographically rich world. The previously manned towers were smashed and empty; the guard stations, defaced; the cell doors, permanently unlocked; the razor wire, filled with garbage. The walls were filthy, and covered in modern graffiti. This place represented how we try to forget the past.

Inviting the people who knew Pentridge firsthand to return, now that it lay dead and forgotten, allowed a circle to be closed. The first prisoners had built the walls, and some of the last ones would be here when they fell.

 
Former Industries Pentridge. By Rupert Mann.png

 

As developers lay hold of and make their irreversible mark on the prison, they peddle a new story for Pentridge: one of palatability, mediocrity, and unthreatening blandness, deploying the uninteresting architecture of economic rationalism. In areas, neat rows of apartments huddle inside remnants of bluestone wall. The development process and the resulting housing inadvertently mimic the past. Security gates lock the public up inside their homes to protect them from criminals, within the carcass of a prison that once locked criminals up inside their cells to protect the public.

 

 

They push a narrative that attempts to exploit the ‘history’ of the prison while in the same breath, hides the truth of that history. The result is a place devoid of its essence, and of authenticity — missing all of the delicate nuances that show its age. Unfortunately, what is washed away along with these dark stories are their inevitable companions — deep insights into the human condition through tales of hope, survival, love, friendship, resilience, and self-realisation.

 
B Division 18. Pentridge. By Rupert Mann.jpg