Fremantle Prison was built on a land grant of about 36 acres (15 ha) from limestone quarried on-site. A 15-foot (4.6 m) tall boundary wall encloses the prison grounds, with a gatehouse in the center of the western wall.
Cottages, which housed prison workers and officials, are located outside the wall either side of the gatehouse.
Inside the walls, the parade ground is located east of the gatehouse. Beyond it is the Main Cell Block at the center of the site.
The prison was administered by a comptroller general, sheriff, or director, responsible for the entire convict or prison system in Western Australia, and a superintendent in charge of the prison itself. Prison officers, known as warders in the 19th century, worked under stringent conditions until they achieved representation through the Western Australian Prison Officers' Union.
At first only imperial convicts were confined at Fremantle Prison. By 1886 less than 60 convicts remained inside a prison built to hold 1000 men. Perth Gaol closed and Fremantle Prison became the colony’s primary place of confinement for men, women and juveniles. With the population boom of the 1890's gold rush, Fremantle Prison became busy once again.
The design for Fremantle Prison was based on the Pentonville Prison in Britain, but with diagonal cell blocks replaced with a four-story linear structure, which would be the longest, tallest prison cell block in the southern hemisphere.
Prison life at Fremantle was extremely regulated. Meals were an important part of the day, eaten in the cells throughout the operational life of the prison. Convict or prisoner labor was used on public infrastructure works until around 1911; subsequently, only work inside the prison was allowed, though there was never enough to fully occupy the inmates.
Punishments varied over the years, with flogging and time in irons eventually replaced by lengthening of sentences and deprivation of visitors or entertainment. More than 40 hangings were carried out at Fremantle Prison, which was Western Australia's only lawful place of execution, between 1888 and 1984.
Fremantle Prison was partially used as a military prison during both world wars – for the detention of military personnel, as well as an internment center. From 1940 until 1946, it was one of more than 50 military prisons across Australia holding a combined total of more than 12,000 enemy aliens and prisoners of war. Fremantle accommodated up to 400 military prisoners and up to 160 civilian prisoners by October 1945 .
The state government made the decision to decommission Fremantle Prison in 1983, but it remained in operation until November 30th, 1991. Prisoners were moved to a new metropolitan maximum security prison at Casuarina. There were divergent views in the community over the site's future, whether it should be preserved or redeveloped.
The following photos were taken five months before the closing of the prison by photographer Karin Calver-Borshoff who had been contracted by the State Government to document the facility, its routines and customs before the site was decommissioned.
After its closure the WA state government embarked on a long-term conservation plan to ensure the Prison’s preservation for future generations. Fremantle Prison is one of the largest surviving convict prisons in the world today.