Let’s just get this out of the way: Fremantle Prison is the most touristy site in Fremantle, a half hour south of Perth. It is Western Australia’s first UNESCO World Heritage listing and one of the top things visitors do when they land in this remote corner of the world. That’s okay! Fremantle Prison is a fascinating place and it’d be a shame to miss it because you’re allergic to school groups and fanny packs.
The penitentiary is the largest convict-built structure in WA—and that’s really saying something in a colony erected on the backs of forced labor. For most of its 136-year history, conditions at Fremantle were grim. From 1852 to 1860, a single cell measured 4 feet by 7 feet. It was lit with an oil lamp and the only furnishings included a hammock, a stool, a small fold-down table, and a toilet bucket. For entertainment: the Bible. The prison’s unfinished limestone walls were a haven for pests and inmates’ cells swarmed with bugs. From 1860 to 1870, lime wash was painted on the cell walls in a half-hearted attempt to control the infestations, but poor plumbing resulted in insects breeding in the puddles. The conditions were unimaginable.
The maximum-security jail was closed in 1991 and reopened the following year as a historic museum. Most first-time visitors join the 75-minute “Doing Time” tour, which takes an introductory look at the prison’s dark history. You’ll see the main cell block, which had mesh safety nets to protect the guards against surprise attacks, plus the exercise yards, kitchen, solitary confinement cells, whipping post, and gallows. The stories of Fremantle’s brutal floggings are especially harrowing. Our tour guide was animated and thoughtful, so be sure to ask good questions! “Doing Time” departs every half hour between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and you needn’t buy tickets in advance.
Four additional tours are on offer, all of which require pre-booking. “Great Escapes” tells the stories of failed prison escapes—plus a few successful ones. The tour takes 75 minutes and departs every hour between 11:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Ghost-themed “Torchlight Tours” are scheduled every Wednesday and Friday night, starting at 6:30 or 7 p.m.; these last 90 minutes. Monthly “Art Tours” walk you through the penitentiary’s convict-drawn frescoes and religious works, Aboriginal dot paintings, graffiti, and tattoo art. Tickets include a complimentary copy of Art Behind Bars: Murals and Graffiti of Fremantle Prison. Cell A24, which you see on the “Doing Time” tour, is especially unique. Its inmate from 1988 to 1991 was given special permission to paint the walls as part of his rehabilitation therapy. The work is beautiful (see below).
The “Tunnels Tour” is the most involved option. Visitors don hard hats and plunge 65 feet beneath the ground to explore a warren of prisoner-dug tunnels. The most thrilling part of navigating the subterranean maze is rowing a replica convict punt through flooded passageways. This tour is designed for adventure, so there are strict health and weight requirements to join, plus a mandatory breathalyzer test. The 2.5-hour tours run daily at 9 a.m., 9:45 a.m., 10:40 a.m., 12:20 p.m., 1:40 p.m., 2:40 p.m., and 3:25 p.m.
Although the prison itself is fascinating, an unexpected highlight for us was seeing the Fremantle Prison Gallery, which displays contemporary works by current WA inmates. The pieces are not identified by artist name, but rather the prison where the inmate resides (Acacia, Casuarina, Albany Regional, etc.). The work is remarkably affordable, ranging from $75 to $2,200 AUD, with many pieces hovering around the $100 AUD mark. When purchased, inmates may direct the money to their families or use it to buy more art supplies. Sales inquiries are handled in the gift shop—just note: You can’t pick up the art until the exhibition has run its course. For larger pieces, international shipping is where they get ya!
Tickets for the five aforementioned tours range from $21 to $60 AUD ($16.50 to $47.17 USD). Entry to the prison art gallery and gift shop is free. There is a paid parking lot with 60 spots, or you can park for free in the neighborhood directly behind the prison. (It’s a five-minute walk to the entrance, no biggie.)
Bonus tip: Ghost-hunting types should consider overnighting at the former women’s division at Fremantle Prison, now a well-reviewed YHA Backpacker Hostel. Guests sleep in preserved prison cells and guards’ cottages and have access to far more amenities than real inmates ever did.
Bonus bonus tip: If you’re catching an early tour and need a morning pick-me-up, stop by the take-out window at Blink Coffee Bar in Fremantle. The roasts are serious and the baristas just the nicest.
1 The Terrace, Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia; +61-8-9336-9200.