Incarceration as a continual tool of invasion

Her Majesty’s Pentridge Prison


Mark Romei

A short stroll from an old rental property where I used to live, long bluestone walls line the main road, propping up a series of gothic turrets and disused watchtowers. These structures are the remains of a notorious site of imprisonment in the colony, and then state, of Victoria. A colonial prison which had been operational for 146 years, only to be closed only in 1997. The perimeter walls have now been partially dematerialised, and today it backs onto a newly constructed housing estate, with recently constructed apartment buildings sharing the grounds alongside the old prison infrastructure. The reuse of this site prompts the question: how is history thought of by those who now live freely within the walls of the former prison? How do they perceive the past, as well as their role within it as a historical continuum?

Exploring the present state of the site through the lens of Aníbal Quijano’s concept of “modernity/coloniality,” in which the project of modernity is built directly upon systems of colonisation, the current combination of architectural forms reflects the interconnected nature of these two projects. The site can be read as a spatialisation of Quijano’s concept, where the bluestone blocks of the former prison visually appear to prop up the new luxury housing developments. It reveals the interwoven existence of the historical systems of colonialism with the contemporary forms of violent, speculative, and capital driven real-estate development.
So how can we begin to think critically about the history of this site, and how it fits into these larger structures and projects? One way could be to consider the origins of incarceration within Australia.

The prison is an architectural typology which found its form in the simultaneous development of both colonialism and modernity. It embodies the interconnected dimensions of these two projects. It should be needless to say that before 1788, no prison had ever been erected on this continent. In the 60,000-80,000 years of continual habitation, Indigenous People never had the need to develop large scale, industrial spaces for the confinement and detainment of large populations of people. Incarceration served, and does serve, as a tool of the settler-colonial invasion and occupation. To unpack this further, a useful frame can be established by borrowing a perspective from Patrick Wolfe: “invasion is a structure, not an event.” Here, the continual and expanding deployment of the prison as a spatial solution to social problems which result from the recurrent internal logic of ongoing colonisation, is a material manifestation of this structure.

Settler colonialism is embedded in the logic of accumulation through dispossession, and incarceration functions as a tool to manage and control the effects of this spatial process.
The closure of Pentridge in 1997 was hardly a step towards re-examining the spatial apparatus of mass imprisonment, or the typology of the prison as a space of incarceration, but rather was a shift away from relying on traditional early colonial era structures, and towards a new model of private prison management. Conducted in newly built modern structures, this new model massively expands the prison-industrial complex in the process: a colonial system still thriving in the present day.