Sitting in discomfort: Pentridge Prison at AMaGA 2023

A photo of a older man with white hair sitting down, flanked by two women looking at him.

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"There’s no reason why this should ever be a comfortable place. This building was designed to intimidate and frighten people—to be this symbol that stood in the north of the city that you would point at and say, ‘I don’t want to be in there.’” – Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer, on Pentridge Prison.

The theme of this year’s Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) National Conference 2023 was ‘Discomfort’, a concept that permeates the entirety of our Pentridge Prison project. As part of this conference, held on Awabakal and Worimi Land (Newcastle) in Australia from 16-19 May 2023, we hosted a panel discussion titled ‘No one truth: Revealing the real history of Pentridge Prison’.

Chaired by Liz Jackson, our Content Director and an award-winning former ABC broadcaster, the session explored the content creation process of sorting truth from myth, the complexities of giving a platform to former inmates, and the dissonance between the prison’s dark history and the redeveloped urban precinct. 

The panel featured Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer, who interviewed former prisoners and other individuals for the project; Jo Besley, who recently joined Art Processors and whose PhD studies examined the representation of trauma and contested history within Australian museums; and John Killick, a former Pentridge inmate whose first-hand accounts of prison can be heard in the immersive audio experiences we developed for Pentridge.

We wanted to present this panel session to clearly convey that interpreting and presenting the troubled heritage of Pentridge Prison is a complex task, where the final result has the potential to raise more questions than answers. It’s a vastly different undertaking to the sensationalism of the ‘true crime’ genre and the theatrical kitsch of prison ghost tours. It doesn’t seek to entertain, but rather, asks the visitor to embrace the discomfort and ambiguity of the stories, the history, and the site itself. 

A video of the panel discussion can be viewed below.

This video contains the name and image of a deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Read the transcript

Liz Jackson:

We also would like to begin today by acknowledging the Awabakal and Worimi people as the traditional custodians of the land and the waters of the Newcastle region. We are grateful to meet on their Country today and to share our work on Wurundjeri Country in Victoria. Also, a quick note, the Pentridge tours include the realities of a harsh prison, including references to violence, executions, and sexual assault. We don't intend to present this in any great detail today, but it is possible that these themes will start to emerge as part of today's discussion. So we'd just like everyone to be aware of that. So, Melbourne's infamous Pentridge Prison was established in 1851. It officially closed in 1997. Some people are surprised to learn that it wasn't that long ago. Well, if you're as old as I am, it doesn't seem like that long ago.

A quarter of a century later, the National Trust of Victoria commissioned experiential design and technology company Art Processors to creatively transform the prison to ensure that its troubled history is not forgotten. The old H and B Divisions of the prison are now open to visitors along with the historic Warders’ Residence via recreated cells, detailed exhibits, and an immersive audio experience narrated by those who spent time in the prison itself. Curating the stories, as you can imagine, presented a creatively, emotionally, and conceptually challenging task for the Art Processors team, which spent countless hours researching and creating the content. In addition, Pentridge Prison now sits within a new urban precinct which poses the additional challenge of how to wrestle the dissonance between the dark history of the site and the very modern surroundings. So that just gives you a little bit of background.

I would like, of course, to now introduce our excellent panel to you. Kate Chmiel, who is seated right here, is a Senior Content Developer at Art Processors. She conducted the research and recorded much of the audio that is featured in the tours. Jo Besley, who's on the end of the panel there, has held numerous curatorial roles in the culture sector and has completed a PhD, which examined testimony as the language of trauma. And of course, John Killick in the middle, former inmate of the notorious H Division, or ‘hell block’ at Pentridge. He spent over six years in the prison. And we are very grateful to John for his participation in the work that we've been able to complete.

So, the words ‘urban renewal’ have been mentioned in that introduction. They have particular relevance in relation to the Pentridge Prison site. I want you to have a look at some of these images and you'll begin to understand the true meaning of the word ‘discomfort’. Tipping over really, I think, into ‘dissonance’ is probably better. So this is some drone footage over the old bluestone walls. They're going overhead across the Warders’ Residence and into the courtyard of Pentridge Prison. And lo and behold, you can see a children's playground on the right. There's a shopping center on the left. There's a cinema inside that shopping center. It is an extraordinary place to go and visit. Meanwhile, much of the prison is left untouched, particularly in H Block as you can see in this slide. I think this series of pictures is quite revealing because you can see there, you have a hotel reception in the old B Block. You have the playground externally, you can see the hotel there in the back of the shot. And in that picture on the edge, you can see the swimming pool, the internal swimming pool that's been built in the old B Block alongside some of the old prison cells that have been converted into hotel rooms.

That's what we were dealing with. And I want to start now with Kate Chmiel. So Kate, I've mentioned the word ‘dissonance’, and it's a word that's been very often used in relation to the project. As the primary audio content producer, how did you tackle that disconnect between the stories of Pentridge and the reality of that precinct today?

Kate Chmiel:

Sure. Thanks Liz. Hello everyone. Delighted to be on Awabakal and Worimi Land. Thanks for having us. So starting with this project, the only thing you can do is go on the site and actually be there, and feel it, and probe it, and feel uncomfortable, and talk to other people about how they're feeling. This is an uncomfortable place. It's a weird place now. As you can see, all these layers of contemporary use contribute to the weirdness. But let's think about what we are starting with. There's no reason why this should ever be a comfortable place. The building itself was designed with the aura of terror in mind that we heard about from Dr Michael Mossman. This building was designed to intimidate and frighten people to be the symbol that stood at the north of the city, that you could point at and say, ‘I don't wanna be in there, the bad people are in there.’

When people were in there, the actual structure of the building reinforced the philosophies of the time about how to reform people through various degradations over long periods of time. But of course, let's also consider the fact that this was plonked on stolen land. This is Wurundjeri Land. It's right next to the sacred Merri Merri, or Merri Creek, and it's in fact built from Country. So these bluestone blocks were all quarried out of the vast basalt deposits nearby. And I thought about that a lot, working on this project. No matter how uncomfortable I feel, imagine the people for whom this is their sacred land. And they had absolutely no say in the matter that this purpose was placed on their Country. And culturally it makes absolutely no sense to Wurundjeri people to imprison people.

So when we started probing and thinking about it, there are two really strong messages you get about the site, and that is one of repulsion and attraction. So when the prison closed in 1997, the Jesuit Social Services, for two years, ran public tours of the site and they had about 230,000 people come through. I think that's right, and I hope I haven't added a zero, but it was massive. So there were all these people who, in Melbourne, understand or understood Pentridge as the place you pass on the drive up Sydney Road, and your parents point at it and say, ‘Be good or you'll end up in there,’—who'd never known what was happening behind the walls, and were really drawn to the place out of curiosity. And there were also a lot of people who returned because they had lived experience of Pentridge and were performing an act of self-healing by being there, or acknowledgement of their own experiences.

There's also the repulsion, the people who say, ‘Oh, I could never live there, I could never go to the movies. I can't go shopping in a place where C Division used to be.’ And in consulting with Wurundjeri Elders, there were Elders who said, ‘No, I will never go on that site because it's sick. It's not a good place anymore.’ So keeping that in mind, we wanted to add another layer of discomfort, really. Not sort of in-your-face, but one you can select to engage with if you want to really understand the history of this site. I'll just add, too, that we inherited in the fabric of the site, through a stop-start series of developments and all kinds of crazy politics on the site—there was an earlier interpretation plan when some of the buildings were built and the landscape was done.

They're really light touch, they're quite abstract, and they focus very much on the establishment and the very early years of Pentridge. Which to us just felt like an act of obscuring just how close this prison is. I mean, this is how close this prison is. You know, the lived experience of the prison is still walking around in Melbourne and still having an impact on thousands of people in Melbourne, Victoria, and Australia. So we wanted to make sure that people who are on the site could hear from someone like John, and hear from other people with experience and recognize it. It was just 26 years ago. It was a completely dysfunctional but functioning prison no matter what it looks like now.

Liz Jackson:

Thanks, Kate. I wonder if you could pass the microphone on to John. John, it must do your head in when you see pictures like this, and you see a swimming pool in the old B Block and the children's playground. How do you feel about the fact that people are now walking around, going on tours of the very building in which you were locked up for so long?

John Killick:

I'm in two minds about it. I went down there late last year for what was going to be the opening when it was put off, but and I went in there and I was inspired to write a book about it, which I did. And I put it out just recently, called ‘Outlaw.’ And one of the reasons I wrote it is because most of the people from my era are gone. You know it won't be long before there's no one around to tell the story the way it was. And there was a Royal Commission, we had the riots down there, and in the late sixties, early seventies, particularly in H Division where people were brutalized, they were bashed. When they entered H Division they were actually told to strip off, and then they were bashed and flogged, and most of the time to near-unconscious.

And they had a Royal Commission into it. And I was a bit upset when Ray Mooney, who'd written a lot about it, sent me some of the material from the Royal Commission where the Royal Commission had actually said that it didn't actually happen. That people weren't brutalized or bashed, they were intimidated, et cetera. And I thought, I think people need to know how it really was down here. And not excusing why people go to jail, but the thing is, if we're going to allow authorities to take law and order into their hands and flog and bash people, it goes beyond what's supposed to go. And the courts are there to do all these things, and it's appropriate that it should be that way. So I was inspired. I was sitting there having a coffee, can you believe it? In Pentridge, and watching all these kids. And there was a place called E Division where I'd actually tried to bust out of in 68, and I got in a lot of trouble. I spent four years in H Division over that, and these kids were trying to get in.

They were climbing up on the windows. And so I went over and said, ‘Listen, get down and get out.’ Then I was the authoritarian there, and they got down, they jumped down. I said, ‘You don't wanna go in there. This is not a good place.’ But actually it is. Now I think it's a hotel. There's a bar there? A brew pub, yeah. And I went there the last time and it was quite good. We had a few beers there. But I've gotta say, look, I felt comfortable. I agree with what Kate says, that these places were built to impose punishment and inflict pain and trauma on people, which they did. Now you go back—even Ned Kelly was there. I was there when the last man was hanged in Australia, and there's a huge doubt now. They still write books about it and about whether he was actually guilty of the crime. And I was there when it happened. You could have actually cut through the air of a knife, the tension. I've never seen a jail as explosive as what it was when they hanged Ronald Ryan.

And that was so controversial that it was the last execution in Australia. So it achieved that much. I think that was the impetus behind the end of capital punishment in Australia. And we're all human. When there's a horrific crime it's in our DNA to think, ‘That bastard, he should be dead. He should be executed.’ But I know, from what I've read, how many people around the world have been wrongly executed. So I just think that Ronald Ryan's case taught us that capital punishment should never come back. And so Pentridge has taught us that too. Pentridge has taught me a lot, but I'm a little different to Kate when I see children running around, and a theater there, and a coffee lounge, and the hairdressers.

I feel good. I feel good because I think that if you can turn something bad into something good, eventually you've achieved something. I think if people can go there and have good memories of the place, then we can help to eradicate what it used to be. But let's never forget. And that's why I put the book out, and there's other literature out there that does explain what a terrible place Pentridge was.

Liz Jackson:

Thank you, John. Jo, I wonder if you could perhaps place the Pentridge project into a global context for us, to give us an understanding of the typology of projects from sites of conscience to dark tourism.

Jo Besley:

Yep. Thanks, Liz. Well, prison museums are really popular, and there's lots and lots of them. There's well over 30 in Australia, and I couldn't get a reliable number internationally, but there's many, many, and on every continent. They include former prisons with or without a museum, as well as prisoner of war camps, prisons for political prisoners, detention centers, and ad hoc or makeshift prisons like Tuol Sleng Cambodia, which was a former secondary school used by the Khmer Rouge regime. So probably the most famous prison museums are Alcatraz Island in California and Robben Island Museum in South Africa. And I think that perhaps the motivation for visiting these museums was best expressed by Nelson Mandela, who was an inmate of Robben Island for a long time. And he said, ‘It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.

A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’ And of course, inevitably, voyeurism as Kate said. The attraction-repulsion. But yeah, prison museums do use really diverse approaches. And so there's not really any settled terminology around it. So we do have dark tourism, thano-tourism, grief tourism, difficult heritage, contentious or contested histories, memorial museums, sites of conscience and human rights museology. So we kind of see that the territory here is personal and communal trauma, victimhood, justice, injustice, ethics, commemoration, reparation and recovery. But Pentridge could also be called a memory museum characterized not so much by its content, but the approach taken to the content, which uses memory as much as history to tell the story. But I have to say that what's unique about Pentridge is precisely the dissonance of the site. In all my research, I have not found another prison museum that shares the site with commercial uses like this. And I mean, in contrast, Constitution Hill in Johannesburg has built the new constitutional court within the precinct of the old fort jail precinct. And that was to create a symbol of the new South Africa, which is, you know, very different to a commercial precinct.

Liz Jackson:

So much of the audio that's featured in the Pentridge tours is raw and visceral, and it puts the visitor right at the center of the story. So we thought you might like to listen to a snippet. This is Doug, who was a former inmate of B Division.

Doug sample:

I remember standing there, and I didn't move, I just looked around the cell, no possessions at all. There was an old wiry bed, a box mattress, and there were stains all over it. And I looked at the toilet and I went, ‘I wonder how many people have used that toilet over the last hundred years?’ And then I looked at the blankets…

Liz Jackson:

So in the course of this project, nine former prisoners were interviewed, a former chaplain, a lawyer, plus retired administrators. Throughout all of those interviews, Kate Chmiel, you were guided by this idea that there's no one truth about Pentridge. But I'm thinking, with all the research—and I know that it was a huge amount that you undertook—you must have felt well-equipped yourself to be able to separate fact from fiction.

Kate Chmiel:

It was a huge challenge. We are dealing with the early record of Pentridge, which was either published by the people in Melbourne who had the most power and the most literacy, or in the popular media. True crime is not a new interest. There's always been an emphasis in popular publications of, you know, the gruesome stories. ‘What scumbags, what rascals are behind the bars, what are they gonna do when they escape and terrorize the good burghers of Coburg?’ There's lots and lots of that in the newspapers and all the way through to the seventies where the Truth newspaper was very interested in any stories about Pentridge. We were enormously helped by a grassroots public history trio, the dynamos. Katrin Strohl, Atalanti Dionysus, and Adrian Didlick who run Pentridge Voices.

So they all met at Coburg Historical Society and then branched off, and completely under their own Steam are running this amazing oral history collection where they have invited anybody. And they're totally agnostic. They will talk to anybody who wants to share a story about Pentridge, they go in with absolutely no judgment, they will talk to absolutely anyone. So they have this amazing network of people who are willing and able to talk about their lived experience there. And they have this deep knowledge from the years of just really being interested. And their main qualification for this, as well as passion and curiosity, is they're all locals. You know, they live near Pentridge, they live in Coburg or nearby and know the site really well. I will say though, in the final experience, we don't ask visitors to judge the veracity of anything.

We are not presenting a true crime puzzle. It's not up to them to work out who the bad guy is, and who the good guy is, and whodunnit. We don't ask them anything other than to sit in that discomfort of, ‘No one will ever be able to pull out one true thread about this place.’ And we see that there's a real kind of strength in this ambiguity, and the only truth about Pentridge is that there is no one truth about Pentridge, which is a catchy tagline, but it really suits here.

Liz Jackson:

And John, I'm curious, why did you decide to participate?

John Killick:

It was, partly as Kate mentioned, through Pentridge Voices. This is a rather incredible thing that they don't get paid for. And they've just interviewed so many people, that they got around to interviewing me. And it's just an incredible amount of stories that they have gathered and the information that they've gathered and they're still doing it. And they got me involved in this project, actually. But the other reason that I wanted to do it was, apart from when I sat down there late last year—I'll never forget it—my attitude changed so much about the whole thing, because I think I shut it outta my mind. What had really happened in Pentridge was traumatic and we tended to cut out traumatic things.

I remember when I got out of there eventually and went to Sydney and got married and had a son and tried to put all that behind me. Pentridge and H Division was something, particularly H Division, was something that I tried to shut out. And when I went back down there, I sat there and as I said, it was weird to be able to drink coffee there and be there. And I decided then that to write the book. And I just think it's so important that we get the truth out there. And I applauded this program to be able to get it across to people what it's like because, you know, once it's gone, once the people are gone who were really there, then history becomes distorted.

You can't get the truth. You've gotta talk to the people, including so many officers who were there, there's always two sides to any story. And some of the officers I think who weren't even brutal or whatever, there's a few of them still alive. And I spoke to a few of them and I try to see it from their side too. And I think that eventually, like 20 years from now when I'm gone, what's happening here today will be an important part for people to be able to refer to. I really believe that. Do I feel comfortable about having been there? I did, I walked away. I remember, I think, Procol Harum was on top of the Hit Parade when I walked out there last time.

What is it? Pearl…? Oh, anyway, a song that goes way back. And I thought, I remember that song and that was on top of Hit Parade, and Ricky Nelson was singing about a Garden Party, that was the last time I was down there. And we're certainly society's come a long way. And yet when I went in there and looked at the buildings, as Kate said, and Jo said, H Division is still almost preserved. It's almost the same. And the worst part of H Division was when you first went there, there's a walkway that you go down, and there was a mirror up the top and inside they could see you coming, and they prepared for you. And you knew that even if you'd never been there, you knew what was ahead of you.

Its reputation preceded itself. So I think that it really is important that we know, because you look at it—this was a suburb you know. New South Wales had Grafton and it was pretty bad and it was the same, but we were in a suburb in Coburg. I mean, 300 meters away there was a hotel and a post office. And yet people were getting brutalized, bashed senseless, within the confines of H Division. And it was so close to families and people, and I think it was acknowledged it was happening. And as Kate said, they accepted, ‘Oh, well they're bad.’ And the way the media portrayed it—'they deserve what they get.’ And we know now that we never should give the authorities that carte blanche to do what they did.

Liz Jackson:

Thanks, John. We're gonna push on because I'm just conscious of time. Jo, I'm wondering if we could get some of your thoughts about the curation of projects like this. Because these firsthand accounts obviously lend a lot of authenticity and they have a veneer of transparency at least, but the reality is that the audio is highly edited. Is that problematic?

Jo Besley:

I don't think it's necessarily problematic, and it's certainly what makes the visitor experience so compelling. I visited, it's amazing, but it's important to acknowledge that working with memory is still very much a curatorial process. So it involves deep research, judgment and balancing multiple needs and perspectives, as Kate's been saying. But also potentially, you know, curators have to make choices. Or content producers. And so it might be about actually shutting down a particular narrative or containing it or even sanitizing it, because despite the immediacy of the visitor experience, the curation still controls the narrative. And sometimes heritage projects like this self-censor or stifle important but difficult voices or try to protect visitors from uncomfortable realities. I think that can be problematic because this kind of traumatic and difficult history, it's political and it's about contested history.

And if you're working in this space, you have to take a position and you have to be willing to defend it. And it's not possible always to satisfy all stakeholders. And I think participants have many reasons. John's given us lots already. And self-selection can raise ethical issues, especially if other voices are silenced. But I think I see first-person testimony as a curatorial resource. It's something we work with. It's a really important type of humanitarian expression and it's a form of advocacy. But this is about power, so who do you give the space to? And it's about justice because who's going to be believed? So yeah, I guess deciding whose voice is heard is an ethical responsibility.

Liz Jackson:

And that leads us into our next question to you, Kate, because you were responsible for much of the editorial decision making about the interview material. So how did you make those decisions about what you were going to include, and I suppose more importantly, what you were going to leave out?

Kate Chmiel:

I'll start with exclusions because that was easier. No ghost tours. No undue emphasis on celebrity prisoners. No gratuitous squalor. And it's not a comprehensive timeline of penal history in Victoria. And the reasons why we chose that—the squalor, of course, is dehumanizing. If you really get down and dirty into that, you forget that we're talking about real individuals. So that's utterly inappropriate for this project. The Old Melbourne Gaol has a great comprehensive story and there's absolutely no reason to duplicate it, particularly because the two sites are managed by the National Trust and one day they do hope to plan a joined-up experience where people will be able to visit both sites, and get that holistic view. The southern part of the site? So, Pentridge was sold and split in half. There are other developers managing the southern half, and they do run ghost tours.

If that's your bag, you can go to them, that's fine. And in terms of celebrity prisoners, there are endless podcasts, books, TV shows, films. If you really want that stuff, you can go there. What was missing is what it was really like behind the walls for the thousands of people who were there who didn't have a profile. So that was the easy stuff to exclude. The things to include? Everyone in this room knows how to conduct research and oral history. I'm gonna assume you know what we did there. I will talk specifically about two groups who are underrepresented in stories about Pentridge and about prisons. The first is women. People don't think about Pentridge as a site for women. It was always a predominantly male environment, but women were there sort of off-and-on at the beginning and then for a big chunk until the 1950s when they were moved to Fairleigh. Then when there was a fire there, they were moved back to Pentridge in really, really desperate digs in a converted wing of B Division for about eight years.

And that story is not well known and we are really, really grateful that we spoke to two women who were able to tell us about what it was like living in B Annex. And of course the other underrepresented voices belong to those of First Nations people who have always been disproportionately represented, and particularly Stolen Generations whose experience with institutions often began at a very young age. And for some of them it just felt like the next step, you go through this home and this home and this home and this home—and then prison. And it's devastating but not unexpected to them. And so we wanted to make sure we captured that experience.

Liz Jackson:

We're gonna take a few moments now just to watch a snippet of the video that you will see if you do the Pentridge tour. It’s of John Killick. This is in H Block. It's just a few seconds. It's not a very long snippet.

John Killick:

I'm John Killick and I was at Pentridge from April 1966 until September 1972. While I was there I tried to escape a few times and I was sent into the notorious H Division. In fact, I actually went to H Division four times. Now the first time that I went there I'll never forget it because I tried to escape from Hawthorn Court and I didn't quite make it.

Liz Jackson:

So that's John, as you see and hear him in the Art Processors H Block tour of Pentridge Prison. Jo, I just want to ask you, John and others have been afforded an enviable platform, some might say to speak publicly in this project. Is there a risk, do you think, in elevating the voices of former criminals in this way?

Jo Besley:

Well, there can be. I think elevating any one position can be problematic, which is why the curator's role is so critical. But, and I think the thing with prison histories, they're incredibly complex and the sort of tripartite of victim, perpetrator, and bystander doesn't apply in the way that it might in other human rights museums. And I think the element of state-imposed punishment makes it even more complicated and raises the question of whether the deprivation or violation of human rights is ever justified. So I'd argue that there's always value in hearing voices that have been silenced or stigmatized and in opening up complex and contested issues. And we need to credit visitors with the ability to make up their own mind.

Liz Jackson:

And Kate, did you experience any moments of self-doubt over the fact that you were giving former criminals this privileged platform to speak from in the absence of the voices of any of those perhaps impacted by the crimes?

Kate Chmiel:

There was a lot of discussion and conversation within Art Processors about this. Ultimately we understood our role as sort of a first stage, the first opening up of the site and answering one of those questions that all those people were looking for in the earliest tours of, ‘What happened in there? What was life like in there?’ And in that context, it doesn't feel right. We didn't feel there was enough space to properly honor all the people who were impacted by the actions of people who were imprisoned there. We visited the lockup as part of this trip to Newcastle and I think that is an incredibly sensitive and thoughtful way to properly center those experiences, and that you can do it in a prison—which, to me, says that's the next stage, that there's so much potential for Pentridge to go on to include those sorts of experiences and explorations. And I feel too that people are watching to see what the first iteration is going to be like. Can they trust people like us with their stories and will they be told respectfully in the space? And I'm hoping that with the first opening up and the way that we've handled it, those people will come forward and there will be those opportunities in future.

Liz Jackson:

And Kate, how uncomfortable was it for you meeting and interviewing some of the country's most notorious former inmates?

Kate Chmiel:

Well, John's a softie, but not all of them are. I hadn't worked on this kind of material before. I haven't had any direct or close contact with the justice system. I was one of those kids who drove past Pentridge and was like, ‘Ooh, bad people.’ So you carry all those preconceptions, and one of the guards that we spoke with said that on their first day of work, they went in with those preconceptions that they thought, ‘Oh, this is the kind of people I'm gonna be working with.’ And were shocked when they showed up and they're like, ‘These guys are just the same as the guys I see down at the shops.’ You know? And to that, her reflection was, ‘Any one of us could end up in jail, you know, through bad circumstances, through bad decisions, those sorts of things.’

Many of us are capable of ending up as criminals. We also thought about duty of care, so we engaged an organizational psychologist. It would've been great to have her earlier in the project. But what she did help us with was looking after our own staff. I'm usually someone who has nightmares about badly managing spreadsheets. So for a while there I was having nightmares about really violent things as a result of this work. So we needed to think about what that was like. And that, of course, teaches us what it's like for visitors coming in and experiencing these stories as well. So thinking about what information they need to decide whether or not this experience is something they're ready for. And of course, people who are reliving their experiences. Someone like John is a very experienced speaker. He's written books. He's spoken to many people about it and there's kind of a skin to his stories, a protective skin. Whereas we did speak to some people who have not talked much about their experiences, including someone who wanted to remain anonymous. And that was really, really raw for both of us.

Liz Jackson:

Jo, Pentridge is closed now. As we mentioned earlier, it closed in 1997. It's no longer how Australia does reformative justice. So why is it important for these stories to be told and to live on?

Jo Besley:

Well, because Australia still has prisons and what happens in prisons is critical to the kind of society we want to be. And the rate of imprisonment in Australia is rising. In 2019, the Australian prison population was at the highest recorded level ever. Plus, every night we have almost a thousand children in juvenile detention, plus 5,000 asylum seekers in detention centers. We've heard at this conference from Uncle Widdy and Frank Golding about out-of-home care and that is experienced like incarceration. And the history of prisons and punishment gives us perspectives on incarceration now. So issues like the privatization of prisons and then the incarceration of refugees in hotels. So you go to Pentridge and there's a hotel. So it's actually incredibly relevant.

Liz Jackson:

John, what do you hope visitors who do these tours will take away with them?

John Killick:

Could I just get back for a second about what Kate and Jo were talking about? I think one of the most important things that we need to learn from prisons is, if you look back, we talk about rehabilitation, but it's very rarely practiced in prisons. And the results speak for themselves. The sort of systems that H Division and Pentridge used to be is not conducive to rehabilitation. And I found that New South Wales have this program, it's called the Violent Offenders Prevention Program. And I went to it and I worked with psychologists. Right throughout my career I robbed banks because I was upset with banks. They had to foreclose the house when I was a kid, and all that.

And then I realized that it wasn't you against the banks, it was you against the people in the banks. And I tried to get this message across to young people. I've spoken to a lot of young people and I really think that the work that I did with our psychologists taught me a lot. It taught me about victims. And that's the thing that most prisoners don't understand. They don't get it. And they need to be taught, they need to be doing programs, and taught that every crime has got victims. And if you run in and rob a bank, you're not against the bank. You're against the people in the bank. And a lot of them may get over it, but there are some that may not.

And you may have traumatized those people and could have even ruined their lives. And I accept that I had a lot of victims in the past and I do try to do something about that. I'm trying to give a lot back to society. I think a lot of people in my shoes that have stepped on the same road I have are doing the same thing, but they need help. We need an understanding from the community who think that, as Kate said, it maybe people think that we're glorifying ex-prisoners. We're not doing that. We're picking the ones that can get out and give a bit back. And I think that we need to look at that in the jails, focus more on rehabilitation and educational programs because New South Wales actually shut down.

I went to Parliament with the teachers union, as they took most of the teachers out of the system and replaced them with clerks, and it was just a retrogressive move. And the bail laws, as Jo was talking about, the bail laws have been changed. So it’s much harder for the people that haven't got much background or job history and things like that, and to be able to show it. It's in the interest of the community for them to be released. And you've got an extra 2,000 people in the New South Wales prison system. So the point I'm trying to get at, is that I just think that we really need everybody to look at trying to bring rehabilitation rather than punishment into our prison agenda. I don't think the government really get this.

Liz Jackson:

Thank you, John. Just finally, Kate, in two minutes, if you can, what does success look like from your perspective? What do you want this project to achieve?

Kate Chmiel:

This is my personal shopping list, This is not an official KPI. First I hope it's a really moving and profound experience for visitors and one they also enjoy. And the early feedback from the tours, that have only been open a few weeks, is that people are loving them. Secondly, I want anyone who comes through the site to take a little step closer to something they maybe haven't looked at before. So think about what each of us are tacitly endorsing in our justice system, by either looking away from it or marking someone or dismissing someone as irredeemably bad, which is definitely the vibe of Pentridge. I think it's a good exercise in us all practicing living in, and among, sites of trauma and sites with these really difficult histories, and learning how to function and be on those sites and acknowledge the stories of them.

Because as we all know, as a nation, our country is founded on places of violence and places of trauma, and we are very good at not addressing it. And we need more practice at just being uncomfortable in places because of what has happened there. And finally, I hope people who've been damaged by Pentridge, whether they were in it or they were related to someone who was in there, the impact of that prison. That by having those stories acknowledged on the site in a permanent and accessible way, that they will find some kind of catharsis and repair.

Liz Jackson:

Kate Chmiel, John Killick, and Jo Besley, our panel. Thank you. And thank you.


Further reading:

If you have an interest in the conceptual and technical elements of our Pentridge Prison project and wish to learn more, please consider exploring the following stories. 

You can also connect with our panelists via LinkedIn: Liz Jackson, Kate Chmiel, and Jo Besley.


Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.