We had a trip back to Maitland to visit the surgeon so we took the time to go see the Maitland jail. We had been in Maitland for all that time and we hadn’t visited one of the most colourful icons of Maitland. Shame on us.
When we first entered the admin area of the jail we were given an audio head set to help with our self-guided tour. I like this type of tour as you are not standing in one spot reading all the time. We walked out of the admin and right into the jail with it tall wall shadowing over us.
The two-foot thick walls topped with razor wire let us know, there was no escape.
Well that isn’t right. There were 40 escapes in the 150 years history of Maitland Jail but most failed. Only 5 men were never re-captured and these escapes took part in the first 50 years of the jail.
The jail has a gruesome history in those 150 years. 16 people were executed with the first hanging taking place in1843. It was held outside of the jail and the local people were invited to come and watch. Watching the hangings stopped in 1861. The reason given was it was thought ‘improper that women and children should be witness to such events’. No kidding. The last hanging was held in 1897.
When you first arrived at Maitland Jail as a prisoner your personal items were taken away. These items weren’t returned to you until you had served the first 6 months of you sentence. What a simple way to break you down to a non person.
We walked in and out of the cells and the blocks listening to the different stories of the inmates. The only one I was aware of was Ivan Malat. He was imprisoned in 1990 after being convicted of the ‘Backpacker’ murders. (The razor wire was only added in 1990.)
One of the saddest rooms was in C block, room 1. It was set-aside as a suicide room. You would be sent into the room naked. It has bars on the front instead of a solid door to make it easy for the guards to keep and eye on you. Adrian walked in to have a look around but I remained outside. Just the thought of entering the room sent a shiver down my spine.
The room was also used if the guards suspected you of receiving contraband from your visitors. Again you were sent in naked and the toilet would be turned off.
Contraband was a big issue for the guards. There is a story that tells how a young woman came to see her man. She wore thongs the same colour as the thongs her man wore. It was discovered after she left that they had swapped foot wear and the ones the prisoner now had were full of drugs. Another time the guards found a homemade knife in the hollowed out chair leg. It was also common for prisoners to make little holes in the wall to hide their stash before then fill them with dried bread and a bit of paint. Very hard to spot.
We walked up a closed in, set of stairs to find the Chapel. The prisoners had added their own touches to the windows to make them look like stained glass. This was an important room for them. Not only did the Chapel have services on Sundays giving some of the prisoners a chance to see who else was in jail or to catch up with friends from different wings but it also offered film nights once a week and a classroom during the week.
The windows in the chapel didn’t have bars on them. It may have given a feeling of freedom. Even only for a moment. Everything else seemed to be cast with lines or shadows of lines. Even though it was a sunny day everywhere we walked seemed cold.
It wasn’t all bad for the jail. In 1949 a massive flood hit the town and the local hospital was flooded. The decision was made to move the maternity ward into the safety of the prison. The jail heard the cries of 16 babies as they were born. It was a nice thought to end my tour on.