Monday, August 27, 2012

A trip to the Old Melbourne Gaol

A few weeks ago, my husband and I did the touristy thing in Melbourne, and ended up at the Old Melbourne Gaol and City Watch House.

I've never been in a modern watch house or gaol. I have no idea how (in)humane they are, but the now closed watch house and gaol both looked barbaric. The scary thing is that the watch house wasn't closed until the early 90s, after I was born. The cells in the watch house were large and meant to hold about a dozen people. Some had benches, some (for the drunks) had just bare concrete floors. Except for those at risk of self-harm, who were put in a padded cell, there was no separation of inmates based on class of offence; being locked up was dangerous. Things like this make me realise that we're nowhere near as removed from the barbaric past as I would like to think.

The watch house was a bit of a shock, but the gaol was depressing. Really depressing. Throughout the cells there were displays and stories of the people who had been incarcerated, and the more I looked the more depressed I became. Sure, there had been violent criminals and murderers, but the primary crime seemed to have been poverty. There were a lot of women imprisoned for failing to provide for their children, while clearly having been unable to provide for themselves either. No men were imprisoned for that crime. One story that really got to me was of two sisters, in their early teens, thrown into gaol over Christmas. Their crime? Vagrancy. Their mother was dead, their father had pissed off to the gold-fields without them, and so they were left with nowhere to live, and no source of income. This was a criminal offence, and granted them a stay in a room like this. This was in the gaol, not in the watch house. They weren't put away for the night for their own protection, they had a trial and sentencing, and were found guilty of the crime of vagrancy. They should have been given help, not a criminal record.

The only way to not be utterly depressed by the experience was to reflect on the fact that our legal system has improved. Problems? Definitely. But we have a better support structure in place to catch people in poverty, and homosexuality is no longer a crime.

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