Sunday, November 28, 2010

No pillow menu. Estonia won. Beware the dark brooding underbelly

So having revisited Pete McCarthy's book where he writes about his visit to Port Arthur (a small town but mainly a penal colony off the southern coast of Tasmania), I actually feel even less qualified to write a post about it. Nearly everyone who visits there comments on the visceral feeling of dread the place evokes, and as the closest I ever got to it was a trip to the Manly pie shop near Sydney, the only dread I felt in Australia was cholesterol-related.

The prison, once known as hell on earth, has a ghost tour, which by all accounts is absolutely fricking terrifying, just because the atmosphere is so doom-laden. McCarthy bailed on the tour but had his own ghostly experience in a probation station block some distance from the prison complex. The ghost tours have been running for 20 odd years and and in that time 1,800 apparitions have been reported. Haunted was an Australian documentary from the 80s that visited Port Arthur.

McCarthy has some interesting ideas on both the idea of prisons within prisons, and horrors upon horrors.

Port Arthur was the place where re-offending convicts in Australia got sent (and in those days it didn't take much to get sent to Australia for 14 years hard labour in the first place: stealing shoes, a handkerchief or even a loaf of bread was enough to get you sent half way around the world in horrendous conditions). Most examples of recidivist behaviour seemed to be "drunkeness". Tassie was even wilder and more remote than the Australian mainland, and the convict colony was on a peninsula that was guarded by a line of tethered half-starved dogs by land and sharks by water.

If the wider scope of Port Arthur wasn't enough to curb any unwanted tendencies, they had "The Model Prison" which was considered forward thinking for its time (bearing in mind a standard punishment was 100 lashes - with a trip to the reviving room to have salt water thrown on your wounds if you had the cheek to pass out - leaving your back like liver and straight back to work for you afterwards). The punishments inflicted in the model prison were psychological: various types of sensory deprivation, and could escalate all the way to solitary confinement in absolute darkness, in an asymmetrical shape, with meals bought at irregular intervals so there was no point of reference to help hang on to sanity. Even those in solitary confinement had to attend church. The chapel had enclosed booths where the prisoners were led, hoods covering their faces until they were shut into the pews, unable to see any of their fellow offenders, only the chaplain at the front.

Even photographs of the place are unnerving. No executions were ever carried out but many convicts died and are buried in unmarked graves on the Isle of the Dead.

And then, from the prisons within prisons, to the horrors upon horrors. Port Arthur had always had a fearsome reputation and haunting atmosphere, but then in 1996 was the setting for the worst mass-murder event in modern Australia.
There are signs up asking tourists to please not discuss the event with the staff. One can't imagine the effect it must have had on an already scarred atmosphere ... fractured is the word one visitor used to describe it.

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