This place is a prison

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Monday, September 10, 2012
On Sunday I visited the Fremantle Prison, a fascinating relic of Australia's history as an island for convicts. It was the first British convicts in Western Australia who in the 1850s built their own jail — The one metre by two metre cells with rusty buckets instead of toilets; The solitary confinement rooms where misbehaved prisoners were locked in complete darkness for 23 hours a day; And they built the gallows where 43 men and one woman were hanged. Eventually the cells would be doubled in size but men would sometimes be shoved two or three to a room due to overcrowding. Because of the limestone structure, temperatures could reach up to 50 degrees in the summer and the men were allowed only three, four-minute showers a week. The prison was decommissioned in 1991 because of public outcry over the inhumane conditions. Trying to run a prison that was built in the 19th century became impossibly cruel, especially considering the inadequate plumbing meant the inmates used buckets as toilets right up until 1991. 

There were studies dating back to the late 1890s recommending the prison's closure because of unacceptable conditions but it would be almost 100 years and two major riots until that happened. I've always been fascinated by prisons — I've toured the infamous Alcatraz at night, listened to the ghost stories and dramatic escape attempts. I've been inside Kingston Penitentiary for a story on inmate education. And the Fremantle Prison is no less captivating. There is some remarkable artwork on the cell walls done by some of the inmates, those individuals deprived of their physical freedom looking for freedom of expression, freedom of their souls. 

I think I'm fascinated by what kind of deprivation of human liberties we once found acceptable and how long it takes for us to look back and shake our heads, wonder how we justified it. I wonder if we'll look back at the way we lock up asylum seekers, "boat people" and question our ways. Janine Della Bosco, who runs guided tours through the prison, said a visitor once remarked: "We should reopen this as an immigration detention centre." 
Della Bosco said because she's a tour guide, "I had to bite my tongue." "Some of the rhetoric you hear is extraordinary," she said, referring to the tense debate in Australia over what to do with asylum seekers who arrive by boat. 

In Canada, Tamil asylum seekers who arrived on the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in 2009 and 2010 were locked up in jails with the general prison population; 25 women and 44 children in the Burnaby women's prison and 423 men in the Maple Ridge prison, some separated from their family. 
Della Bosco was stunned at this: "They've committed no crime," she said. "I don't know why they can't process them in the community." 

Katie DeRosa is in Australia, investigating the mandatory detention system for asylum seekers who come by boat, in light of Canada's tougher refugee reforms under Bill C-31.  


Tags: "asylum seekers" "australia" "mv sun sea" "ocean lady" "bill c-31" 


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