Razor wire lies coiled on top of the thick high sandstone walls. Taking a deep breath, I pull into the carpark of Maitland Gaol. This maximum-security jail, closed since 1998, once housed some of New South Wales’ most hardened criminals. Even as a visitor to the heritage site, I feel intimidated.
Touring Maitland Gaol
Built on a hill overlooking East Maitland, Maitland Gaol opened in 1848 and was a major employer in the region. Today it’s a prime tourist attraction.
Armed with the self-guided audio tour on my phone and a warning not to touch the sharp razor wire and to beware of the heavy doors, I step into the jail.
As the last visitor for the day, I’m alone and am immediately struck by the stark environment. Bare concrete and sandstone surround me. High perimeter walls restrict the view to that of the blue sky.
The Visitor Area
The audio tour begins innocuously enough in the visitor’s area. Groups of cream plastic chairs bolted to the floor are arranged around small circular tables. To one side cheerful cartoon characters painted on the wall designate a narrow play area.
Then the audio describes the tensions of visiting time and a heavy feeling descends on me as I comprehend the reality of life for some people. Prisoners after being strip searched and dressed in white overalls had to remain seated while visitors were subject to metal detectors and sniffer dogs.
And woe betide the child who needed the toilet. Leaving the area for any reason meant the end of the visit.
“The Toughest Jail in the State”
An inmate from 1961 describes Maitland Gaol as “the toughest jail in the state at that time”. Walking through the now quiet and uninhabited work area, cell blocks, chapel, shower block and muster area, that statement bears out.
Cells are small and dark. I enter one, imagining sitting on a narrow bed as the heavy metal door slams shut and the bolt jolts into place.
Alone, my Heart Beats Faster
Between stops, I become disoriented and turn around with more than a little anxiety hoping someone can see me on a screen somewhere. I really don’t want to stay here for the night.
The loud rhythmic noise of a helicopter breaks the silence. As it flies overhead, I recall the helicopter escape from Silverwater Jail many years ago.
Stories from Maitland Gaol
During the tour, ex-prisoners, prison guards and case workers describe their experiences bringing home the reality of life in Maitland Gaol. One guard describes his work day as “hours of boredom punctuated by sheer terror” when “something went down”.
Another describes the “brutal environment” saying that one thing a prisoner has “is time”. Time was often used to figure out how to bring in contraband. The story about home brew and a fire extinguisher makes me chuckle.
On hearing the name Ivan Milat, I shiver. The serial murderer spent time here, and possibly walked past right where I am standing.
Two pigeons have made the shower block their home. These latest inmates are harmless, unlike the so-called “heavies” who commanded respect from prison guards and fellow prisoners alike.
Little left to the Imagination
A visit to Maitland Gaol leaves little of life in a maximum-security jail to the imagination. As I step out of the prison gate, I take a deep breath and look up at the vast blue sky. It is so good to be free.