A school excursion to a maximum security prison

Main entrance of Goulburn Maximum Security Prison.

Main entrance of Goulburn Maximum Security Prison.

There are all kinds of reasons we choose the subjects we study in high school; future career prospects, the schedules of our friends, the inflexibility of the school’s time table. In 1993 when I was at pains to pick the perfect combination of subjects to secure myself a career in magazine publishing there was one largely irrelevant subject at the top of my wishlist.

As the highest priority I selected the lowly regarded, one unit HSC subject General Studies for one reason - the annual excursion to Goulburn maximum security prison.

Of course it’s hard to fathom today that one would drive a bus load of catholic school girls in to a working prison to supplement  their light study of the criminal justice system but 20 years ago people must have been so high on the fumes of their hyper-colour t-shirts that this seemed like a worthy and practical extension of class room study.  I wasn’t going to miss out.

Aerial view of Goulbourn Maximum Security Prison.

Aerial view of Goulbourn Maximum Security Prison. Photo: Barry Chapman

Our high school was just a short 10 minute drive and one security check away from Australia’s most infamous jail. In tartan box-pleat skirts and hats emblazoned with the school logo we climbed on to the mini-bus on a wintry a mid-week afternoon.

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I’ve always had an intense fear and fascination with prison life that stemmed from my parents allowing me to watch the film Midnight Express before I was tall enough to go on a rollercoaster. Alighting the bus and walking through the giant metal doorways was the most terrifying thing that had happened to me since my brother and I acquired a copy of the Stephen King mini series, “It” and watched it back-to-back as a marathon.

On arrival we were placed, like newly arrived inmates, in to a secure holding area. We sat quietly as a young man in a canvas jumpsuit held a fist full of tissues over his blood-smeared face. His nose appeared to be spread liberally across most of his face. We were assured he was ‘fine’. He was simply waiting for an ambulance, he’d been in a fight.

Correctional officers in the exercise yard  at Goulburn prison.

Correctional officers in the exercise yard at Goulburn prison. Photo: Narelle Autio

The guard then walked us through the process of checking in an inmate, we saw the bleak shower cubicles, lockers, the uniform dispensary and were shepherded out on to an empty concrete expanse - ‘the yard’ just like the ones on TV.

We wandered around the periphery of the prison and he told us about the one successful escape many years ago. On the left he pointed out an outdoor cage where ‘The Granny Killer’ spent his days. He was cordoned off from the rest of the prisoners as he’d be ‘dead meat’ if they were allowed to mingle. There were all sorts of strange messages smeared on the walls - in a time before iphones and the internet - we soaked up the disturbing sights wondering exactly what they meant - and moved along.

As we looped around long cell blocks. The guard explained that it was hard to get people to work at the prison, they had a high turn-over staff and it was a very stressful job. Not made any easier I would come to realise, by inviting in school girls in to tour the grounds.

Our adventure concluded with the group walking single file down a working cell block. The inmates voices were quiet at first ‘I can smell you’ one whispered (a line unoriginally borrowed from Silence of the Lambs I remember thinking) and built up to screams, wails and, I’d wager,  some of the most colourful and inappropriate language ever spoken during an educational experience.

After whipping the inmates in to an audible and disturbing frenzy we exited across the yard and had a Q&A session in the visitors room. ‘How scary is it to work here?’ opened the session.

Some school excursions remain unchanged today: Parliment House (a Q&A with the Prime Minister if you’re lucky), the Opera House and The National Art Gallery. Others, like gawking at incarcerated criminals, were memorable but perhaps best left back in the era of chokers, clogs, Impulse body sprays and bottles of Sub Zero.

Being inside a real working prison satisfied my curiosity and was the adrenalin rush my 16 year old self imagined it would be but in retrospect I think I probably could have gleaned just as much from my combined viewing of Law & Order and 21 Jump St.

General Studies is no longer offered as HSC subject.