Spots of Time

April 01, 2003

Too Much of a Good Thing

The lunatic asylum in the ruins of the Port Arthur penal colony in southern Tasmania is located side by side with the solitary confinement prison. This layout is not random but a planned move, as it was found that too much time in solitary lead to insanity among the inmate population.

I was to discover this first hand during my “alone time” in Tasmania.

Renting a car in Tasmania had seemed like a good idea. With only six days left on the island it offered me the most flexibility to do and see what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. And, in truth, the thought of driving alone didn’t bother me – except for my previously mentioned lack of flat tire changing ability. When my “ride share” advertisement failed to draw any takers, I was not fazed and simply took off on my merry way.

A day or so later, while cruising past the green paddocks (fields) sprinkled with sheep and dotted with eucalyptus trees, I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten some of the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem. This might seem like an odd realization to have in the middle of the Tasmanian country side, but in truth the fact that I was at the time actually singing the national anthem is far stranger. Let me step back a moment.

My rental car, Bruiser, was an older model vehicle with numerous “battle” scars. It became apparent the first day that the radio did not work. This was a disappointment, as I particularly like singing along with the radio when driving alone. It is like being a “shower-only” singer except with a far less likely chance of discovery as you are a constantly moving target in your own getaway car. Though the car had a tape deck, I did not have any tapes with me and decided to move ahead in silence.

Considering my mobile environment and lack of proper music, I was not too concerned to hear myself begin to sing random bits of songs to break the monotony of the trip. Though Tasmania is a small state, with relatively limited distances between towns, the roads can be windy and it takes a while to get from place to place. This paired with the Tasmanians apparent tendency to drive below the posted speed limit makes for slow going on most of the state’s roads. My experience was no different.

My a cappella repertoire was incredibly limited and would have been painful to all ears but my own. It included a bit of the newest Counting Crows song (something about “paint paradise and put up a parking light”) which had become stuck in my head before I left on my driving adventure, some select John Denver tunes (no comments please), and some random songs from my childhood. My most frequently sung piece was undoubtedly Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” which I realized was one of the only popular songs I knew from start to finish.

I also noticed that I had begun talking to myself. At first it was little things – chiding myself for taking a turn too fast or congratulating myself for avoiding yet another wombat road kill. Soon I was encouraging Bruiser to speed up and overtake slower vehicles. However, it was when I began asking and answering my own questions about directions that I began to get a little worried.

It was the national anthem, however, that really made me re-think just how much alone time was healthy for the average person. I think I was in somewhere in central Tasmania when, running out of new material, I began to sing the anthem. My shock at realizing I didn’t know all the words was quickly surpassed by my shock that I had been singing the national anthem at all.

It was about this time that I realized I needed to be with people. No matter how much I valued alone time, this was going a bit too far. So, I turned Bruiser south and drove all the way to Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city. It was the next day that I toured Port Arthur, the last penal colony in the state of Tasmania as well as the country of Australia.

My guide at Port Arthur, a white bearded gentleman whose voice sounded exactly like actor Sean Connery’s, explained that Port Arthur, though populated primarily by convicts, was not a prison but rather a working penal community. Therefore, when the convicts misbehaved, and the whip was no longer an effective punishment, it was necessary to put them somewhere where they could be controlled. The solitary confinement prison was such a place.

Convicts were placed in tiny cells, no wider than a queen-sized bed and only slightly longer with a small window high on one wall and a cot on one side. They were allowed no human contact other than that of the guards, only allowed out one hour per day for exercise and strictly forbidden to make noise of any kind – talking, whispering, singing – even clearing their throat was enough to send them to a place even worse than where they were. A place where their current situation would seem like paradise – the punishment cell.

The punishment cell was about 6 feet long and four feet wide and had no other ornament or provisions. It had walls that were a meter thick, no window and one door – that when shut, isolated the prisoner from light and sound. A prisoner could scream for hours and no one would hear him. Prisoners were not removed except for one hour every three days for exercise in the courtyard during which time it was easy to see the affect of the cell on their spirit.

My mind lingered on this picture while the guide finished his tour, leaving us directly in front of the prison. I decided to go inside and check the place out for myself. While walking through the narrow hall that separated the two rows of individualized cells I noticed a sign pointing left with the words “Punishment Cell.” Drawn forward I followed the path to a thick door and peered inside. No one was around so I took a deep breath and stepped inside, closing the door behind me. I was plunged into darkness so thick that I quickly became disoriented. It was cold, quiet and utterly disconcerting. I could imagine the tricks that a man’s mind could play on him in such a situation, especially one that was not voluntary.

I quickly opened the door and stepped outside, walking a little too fast and following the exit signs to the outside of the building. Here I stood for a moment, taking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing and watching the people walk freely among the grounds. As I began working my way back to the visitor center I passed the lunatic asylum and paused briefly outside the entrance. From the outside it looked like a pleasant enough building, painted a pleasing pink and white – stark contrast to the dull grey walls of the prison next door. I was sure there was interesting information inside about the history of the building, its inhabitants and their reasons for admittance.

Instead I turned and walked down the hill, back to my car and back to Hobart. That night a band from Cuba was going to play a free concert in the town square and I didn't want to miss a minute of the chaos of thousands of people jostling for a good view. It was just what I needed.