Fremantle prison riot

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The aftermath of the 1988 riots.
Restored division 3

The Fremantle prison riot was a prison riot that occurred on 4 January 1988 at Fremantle Prison, in Western Australia. The riot was organised as a diversion for an escape that was to take place. Prisoners created a fire as part of the diversion, and temperatures inside the cells were recorded at 52.2 °C (126 °F). 3 division and 4 division were taken over by a total of seventy prisoners, and 15[1] officers were taken hostage. The fire caused $1.8 million in damage and unintentionally prevented the planned escape.

Fremantle Prison was built using convict labour during the 1850s, based on the design of Pentonville Gaol, and was used as the maximum security prison for male offenders in Western Australia. During the 1890s the size of the cells were doubled by removing a join wall between two cells. The conditions in the cells remained unchanged except for lighting and basic toilet facilities. The prison population was divided into 4 divisions; 3 division housing violent prisoners and 4 division housing murderers and those serving long term sentences.

It was suggested that the riot and fire was staged as a diversion by twelve men including Brenden Abbott, to assist a mass escape from the prison. During the two weeks prior to the riot they collected 3 litres of fuel from lawnmowers, which they managed to conceal in their drink bottles.

The riot[edit]

Just before 4:00 pm two prisoners were brought in from the exercise yards in 3 division to deliver tea and hot water to the cells as the other inmates were locked away. Two twenty-five litre drums of boiling water were stationed on the top floor above the gates, which was perfectly normal. Five officers were stationed in the division on this day, and as two officers opened the gates to let the prisoners in, fifty litres of boiling water was poured on their heads. At that moment, seventy violent prisoners from division three rushed in through the gates and quickly overpowered the officers, locking them in the yards. The prisoners now had the cell keys, and made their way to the top floor, opening every cell and throwing down anything removable and combustible, and piled it up at the doorway at the end of the division.

A fire was lit which soon became much bigger than anticipated, with flames reaching the roof. The roof was the original jarrah timber built 140 years prior, and before long half of the third division and all of the fourth division was a raging inferno that could be seen from Perth. Images were broadcast live across national television. Camera crews in helicopters filmed the chaos as the prison roof collapsed. From the air it appeared as if no efforts were being made to extinguish the fire; efforts were being made but the main gates were made in 1850 by convicts were too narrow to get fire engines through. The fire continued for nineteen hours until it was brought under control.

After the fire was under control, the prisoners negotiated a trade of the prison officers for food and to return control of the prison back to the guards. Although 15 officers were injured (two of them seriously), nobody was killed.


In February 1988 a report into the causes of the riot was prepared. The report suggested that little evidence supported the escape plan theory common in the media, but that the riot was largely the result of an incident of that morning involving the mistreatment of a prisoner and his subsequent release into three division yard.[2]

Total damage to the prison amounted to $1.8 million, including the cost of restoring the roof to its original condition. The riot highlighted the poor conditions inside the jail and two years later the prison was closed with most prisoners being transferred to the new Casuarina Prison. The prison was turned into a tourist attraction which is now nationally heritage listed.

A trial was held at a cost of $3 million and 33 men were charged. The twelve ring leaders were given six years on top of their current sentences, two of those in near solitary conditions; one, armed robber, Brenden Abbott successfully escaped from Fremantle prison in 1989 and spent five and a half years on the run before being caught in Darwin.


  1. ^ Fremantle Prison, a brief history Cyril Ayris ISBN 0-9581882-1-1
  2. ^ Report of the Enquiry into the causes of the Riot, Fire and Hostage taking at Fremantle Prison on 4 and 5 January 1988. Prepared for the Hon. J.M. Berinson, M.L.C., Minister for Corrective Services, 17 February 1988, John McGivern B.A., J.P.