In Part One, I tried to focus on the small kindnesses at Boggo Road, but that paints too simple a picture of this place. It was, as all acknowledge very publicly, “A HellHole.”
Opened in 1883, the prison grew and changed quite a bit before its closure in 1989, or 1999, or 2002 (depending on which part you are talking about). However, some things always remained the same.
Modern electrical and plumbing updates were never made in the windowless cell blocks. This meant that inmates were subject to brutal heat, cold, persistent darkness, and having to relieve themselves in urns that would be taken to a “slop yard” for rinsing every day. Every day, that is, if they were allowed out of their cells.
In 1935, a woman named Constance Clyde (who was arrested for reading tea leaves, and refusing to pay a fine for it) wrote an article for a local newspaper about her experience there.
I include this section mostly because I feel a strong fondness for Ms. Clyde. She a suffragette, contemptuous of Puritanism, and writer of short stories, poetry, and investigative journalism. Most of all- she was not one to be fucked with, and I respect that. I like her.
Back in Boggo Road, court-ordered floggings were issued feely, and deaths by suicide, murder and medical neglect reached into the hundreds. Escapes were frequent in the early years, and not unheard-of later. Riots began to break out as early as 1921, but became extremely violent and frequent in the 1970’s and 80’s. Prisoners staged hunger strikes and stand-offs with guards and personnel. Prison staff were also prone to striking, or just plain giving up on trying to maintain order in the trouble-plagued complex. It fell into chaos.
International attention was garnered in 1987/88, as Brisbane prepared to host the World Expo. Instead of changing to modernise or raise
Of the 42 people executed by hanging at Boggo Road, at least two of them are now known to be innocent, including the only woman executed. Her name was Ellen Thompson. And true, it was much more complicated a storyline than just that she was framed for killing her abusive husband- it almost always is. The fact, though, that the politicians, judiciary, and wardens knew her to be innocent before they proceeded to murder her is appalling.
Her body, like all the others, was dumped in an unmarked grave in the nearby Brisbane State Cemetery.
Later, the site was marked with a plaque. We know because this plaque on the entrance to the pedestrian bridge we cross to get to UQ told us so.
The boys and I have looked for the grave. But the cemetery is quite large, and we have had no luck so far. I am determined to find it in this lovely stoneyard.
There is a blossoming friendship between my family and a man named Larry Campbell, who spent more than his share of time (off and on) at Boggo Road. He has a stand at the Farmer’s Market in the prison plaza every Sunday, where he sells his many self-published books and a few other mementos. He speaks passionately about prison reform and the importance of early intervention and youth opportunities to promote pro-social behaviours. He speaks little about the conditions he suffered under at Boggo Road- but his books explain why he is loathe to utter the words aloud.
The woman who acted as our tour guide was brought here as a child- her father employed as a guard. She clearly loves this place. There is no sweetener added to her recounting of what happened. She acknowledges the full range of experiences- from kitty cats to stabbings- with a matter-of-factness that is refreshing. There is no pageantry here.
So what is to become of this place?
Efforts to privatise the site have met some resistance, but as many of us know- pushing back against corporate interests is Sisyphean. And yet, we keep rolling those damn boulders up the hill, don’t we?
There is currently a petition to maintain the prison as a heritage site. You can like them on Facebook and keep up with tours, speaking engagements, and Inmate and Indigenous Art Shows.
I am dismayed that they want to gentrify the Boggo Road complex by converting this space into a “cultural centre” where- for the right price- you can take in a meal where once people starved, or purchase luxury items in a place where human beings had to physically fight to secure jam or toilet paper.
It doesn’t have to remain in stasis as a trophy of historical denigration, but it shouldn’t be converted into a showcase of modern materialism.
What about a community hub- with free programming to offer opportunities to lower-income families? What about a library dedicated to social justice literature? What about a Peace Centre?
Men and women had their dignity stolen here. We should give it back to them by honouring their memories and utilising this space in a way to promote resiliency of the communities in this area.