Separate Prison, Australia : Chilling, Tragic History

Australia’s notorious, now-closed facility, The Separate Prison, was known for its horrific kind of psychological torture rather than its brutality in the form of physical punishment.

separate prison, the isles of dead

From its establishment in 1833 until its closure in 1877, the Australian penal colony of Port Arthur was home to some of the most severe offenders in all of British colonial history. The outpost on the island of Tasmania off the southern coast of Australia was promoted as a “inescapable prison” because of its extreme isolation, natural barriers, and high levels of security. Separate Prison, famed for its lack of physical punishment in favour of psychological discipline, was also located at Port Arthur.

Each inmate was assigned a number, prisoners were required to wear hoods while they were together, and it was not uncommon for inmates to go days without food, sunlight, or human interaction. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that a jail was built right adjacent to an asylum, and that the surrounding Isle of the Dead was used as a cemetery for over a thousand inmates.

Separate Prison was not considered savage at the time; just the opposite, in fact. Panopticon, a concept developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, inspired the layout of the prison. This layout made it possible for a single guard to keep an eye on all of the inmates at once. As a result, the watchtowers at Separate Prison are centrally located and can look down all four sides of the building.

separate prison, the isles of dead
The Isle Of The Dead

The Silent Torture

At Separate Prison, inmates were taught that physical punishment did more to harden them than help them. Instead, inmates were controlled through a combination of sensory deprivation and social isolation. All convicts were required to keep silent at all times and wear hoods or masks outside of their cells as part of the facility’s “Silent System.” This was supposed to give inmates a chance to think about the repercussions of their actions, but the reality was much darker.

Many prisoners reportedly went insane from isolation, and others allegedly committed murders as a means of avoiding the death penalty. Death row inmates of Port Arthur were all relocated to the nearby Isle of the Dead. It has been reported that 1,646 people are laid to rest on the little island. Only 180 burials are marked, including those of jail employees and military men.

separate prison, the isles of dead
Marked graves at the Isles Of the Dead

Shark-infested waters

It was rumoured that sharks prowled the waters around Port Arthur, and getting to the mainland required crossing a peninsula guarded by troops, traps, and half-starved dogs. Martin Cash, a notorious inmate, famously swam across the water to freedom. His autobiography, The Adventures of Martin Cash, published in 1870, detailing the escape, was a huge success down under.

One of the prisoners wasn’t as fortunate. To evade capture, George “Billy” Hunt wore a kangaroo skin and attempted to pass himself off as the animal. Billy was unlucky since the guards were underfed and had to shoot at the obvious animal. Billy dodged the bullets, shed his fur, and surrendered. For his actions, he got 150 lashes.

Where is Separate Prison Now?

Obviously it’s in the same place where it used to be, right? Just that it’s all ruins now.

separate prison, the isles of dead
Present-Day Separate Prison Ruins

Many of the prison structures at Port Arthur fell into disrepair when the jail was closed in 1877. The destruction was exacerbated by a string of fires between 1895 and 1897. The locals were relieved to see the building collapse, as they were ready to put the area’s troubled past behind them.

When Martin Bryant opened fire on unsuspecting tourists in 1996, it brought a devastating ending to the story of Port Arthur. A total of 35 people were killed and over 20 were injured by Bryant’s actions. As a result of the Port Arthur Massacre, Australia enacted some of the world’s strictest gun control measures.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service now oversees Port Arthur and the Separate Prison ruins, which together make for one of Australia’s most eerie tourist destinations. The stunning natural setting of the area around the jail only serves to heighten the frightening nature of the facility’s sad history. At night, visitors can go on a ghost tour and hear tales of rocking chairs that move on their own, cells that still ring with phantom cries, and eerie lights flickering from the Isle of the Dead.

The number of dead bodies at The Isles Of The Dead may seem like a big number to you. But have you heard of the Catacombs of Paris, which has the remains of more than 6 million people under the busy streets of the French City.

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