Dec 112023

For many years I, like thousands of other Melbourne residents, travelled past the imposing bluestone walls which encased the entire prison complex. At each corner that we could see, stood a rounded turret rising above the wall and within each turret stood or paced and an armed officer, his rifle slung over his shoulder and his gaze fixed inward. Just visible from the road above along the wall was a hint of rolls of barbed wire. On sunny days, the blue grey walls absorbed the sunlight casting shadows across the ground, on wintry days the walls added to the overall bleakness of the day, at night the walls were blackened, silhouetted by the strange orange light emanating from inside the compound.

When I was much younger, my father used to drive our family past Pentridge on the way to visit our extended family. He always told me, “That’s where they put bad people.” There was no elaboration – just a statement of uncontested fact – bad people were kept behind those walls.

Sometimes as we drove past the front entrance during day light hours, a few men in overalls would be out the front tending to the neatly manicured lawns and shrubs. A uniformed officer would be stationed nearby. These men would not acknowledge anyone, their heads down and focused on the garden beds and the paths. Everything was neat and tidy, and quiet.
The imposing perimeter walls, hewn bluestone mined from a nearby quarry (now a lake), masterfully assembled by convict labour in the 1850s, embrace the front entrance. Two castle like towers framing the turrets book end the yawning mouth of the famous (or is it infamous) Pentridge Front Gate. Sited in the southernmost tower was (and still is) the Pentridge clock tower with four clock faces, each confronting a key compass direction, each flaunting a different time!

As a youngster, I often wondered what went on behind those walls.

In autumn 1977, I was given my first opportunity to find out. The journey that day took me through the main entrance to witness the world inside the walls. I sensed I was stepping into a world which could best be described as a remote universe albeit sited only nine kilometres from the central business district of Melbourne. This was the start of my connection with Victoria’s prison system – a connection which lasts through to this very day.

On that first day I presented at the front gate as a teacher on placement to the Pentridge Education Centre, a special school registered with the Education Department of Victoria. After three years’ teaching in primary school settings, I undertook post graduate studies in special education, and this was one of the placements I experienced in that year.

As I approached the front gate, I walked past an older fellow standing alone, outside the gate, on the pavement next to Champ Street. Champ street, with its single row of bungalow houses facing the prison, served as the roadway connection between Murray Road and the hectic traffic flow on Sydney Road, Coburg. This man’s face was hidden in the shadow of a broad brimmed hat reminiscent of the 1950s, his body shape submerged under an ill-fitting heavy brown woollen suit with broad shoulder pads inserted. Under his left arm he was cradling a cardboard box to his hip. The box was secured with strands of string tied in place with a flowing bowed knot on top. He was just standing there – motionless, staring ahead, waiting.

Inside the front gate, I went through the routine that I was to become accustomed to for many years to come. My name was checked against a list of visitors; my ID was checked to assure I was that person named on the gate list; my bag and books checked to ensure I was not bringing any contraband into the prison. When the prison officers were satisfied that I was the person on the list, and that I would not contribute a security risk, a phone call was made to the prison’s education centre and an escort called for. The experience of this morning laid the foundation of the regular experiences of working in a prison – the experiences of being checked out at every post, the experience of being viewed as a potential security risk, and above all the experience of having to wait.

Everyone waits in a prison.

I was escorted through a labyrinth of alley ways and checking points known as posts all the way to the education centre before meeting the school principal, receiving a brief induction, and then being escorted again to another part of the prison where I was to be based for this four-week experience placement.

This escort took me back through the main gate explaining that we will turn to another entrance in the prison via a small gate embedded in the west facing wall.

Before exiting the front gate, the officer on the front door opened the peep hole to check it was safe to open the exit door when he mentioned over his shoulder to someone else behind me. “He’s still there. He cannot get across the road. He’ll be back here in no time.” “Typical” was the response from behind me. Sure enough, after almost two hours of my travelling, meeting with the principal and key staff, and waiting inside the prison, the man standing out front had not moved, still clutching his cardboard box to his hip.

This image is burned into my memory and, upon reflection, became the significant symbolic representation of travel between the parallel universes of prisons and community and prisons within community – me entering a prison in a professional capacity as a teacher for the first time and this man leaving the prison, ostensibly returning to the community after completion of his sentence.