During the week, I spent a morning doing a tour of H Division within the old Pentridge Prison in Coburg.
Pentridge Prison was a notorious correctional facility located in Coburg, Melbourne, Australia. It operated from 1851 to 1997. Originally built as a stockade for prisoners during the Victorian gold rush, it later evolved into a high-security prison.
Throughout its history, Pentridge housed some of Australia’s most infamous criminals, including Ned Kelly, the famous bushranger. The prison witnessed numerous riots, escapes, and violent incidents. It was known for its harsh living conditions and brutal treatment of inmates.
In the 1970s, public scrutiny and calls for prison reform grew, eventually leading to Pentridge’s closure. The prison was decommissioned in 1997, and the site has since been redeveloped into a mixed-use precinct, incorporating residential, commercial, and heritage elements. Today, the remaining prison buildings serve as a reminder of Melbourne’s convict past.
H Division is a dismal place where unspeakable cruelty was inflicted on Victoria’s worst prisoners (and the other parts of Pentridge were not much better). H Division was a ‘prison within a prison – reserved for the most dangerous and violent offenders. It’s a toss up as to whether the prisoners or the warders were actually the most violent..
Even a prisoner’s entry into this wing of the prison was brutal. Upon being frogmarched down the ramp to H-Division, each inmate was stripped naked for a security search. Surrounded by several prison guards armed with batons, he was beaten repeatedly until he fell to the ground. “You’re in H-Division now, the rules outside don’t apply here. Now you know who is in charge,” the representatives of Her Majesty’s Prison Service would say. If the inmate responded with any verbal or physical defence he would be kicked repeatedly until he looked like a broken man. No one really knew what happened here until a prisoner was released back onto the streets of Melbourne and able to tell his story.
Prisoners were generally separated from one another. Certainly all were held in individual cells for most of the day. Some were only allowed one hour’s exercise, others went to the labour yards from 8am until 4pm most days where, until 1976, their job was to break bluestone (basalt rock) slabs into small stones the size of marbles.
Rock breaking yard
Conditions in H Division were notoriously tough, with cramped and unsanitary cells. Inmates endured strict discipline, constant surveillance, and frequent violence between prisoners and guards. The prison was known for its strict regime and oppressive atmosphere.
This brutality persisted throughout the time that a prisoner spent in H Division. A minor infraction of the rules, or the hint of insubordination, would result in a beating. Prisoners in H Division faced the constant threat of violence and power struggles among inmates. There was only one prisoner in each of the thirty seven cells. As our guide said “If there were two men to a cell, only one of them would come out alive”.
Overall, life in Pentridge Prison’s H Division was marked by isolation, violence, and a lack of basic comforts.
Pentridge Prison has undergone a significant redevelopment since its closure in 1997. The redevelopment project has aimed to preserve the historical significance of Pentridge while creating a vibrant and modern community. The iconic bluestone walls and several heritage buildings have been retained and restored, providing a glimpse into the prison’s past.
Through its redevelopment, the old prison site features a range of residential properties, including apartments and townhouses. It also includes retail spaces, cafes, restaurants, and recreational facilities, contributing to a lively and diverse community. It has transformed the old prison into a thriving precinct that combines history, culture, and modern living.
The remaining prison buildings are now National Trust properties and are protected to preserve the historical integrity of this era of our history.
Governo’rs Residence within the prison walls.
B Division Building
If wish to read more about prison life in Pentridge, This website has an interesting overview.