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Pentridge Prison was originally established as a temporary stockade in 1850 to alleviate overcrowding at the Melbourne Gaol. It was known as the Pentridge Stockade Complex, an ad-hoc group of structures built by the prisoners.
In 1858, construction began on Inspector General William Champ's model prison complex, based on British models, and incorporating a new system of prisoner classification and ideas about penal reform. The prison continued to be enlarged and expanded throughout the 1860s and 1870s and became known as the Pentridge Penal Establishment. Following the Stawell Royal Commission of 1870, an extensive work program for prisoners was introduced.
In 1894, a new prison was erected within the outer walls of Pentridge for female prisoners. The Female Prison, Pentridge (VA 4141) was proclaimed in May 1894 under the Gaols Act 1890, as a separate establishment for female prisoners, operating within the walls of Pentridge Gaol.
In 1932, the Female Prison was incorporated, along with the Metropolitan Gaol and the Penal Establishment Pentridge, into His Majesty's Gaol, Pentridge. Both the Female Prison and the Metropolitan Prison were revoked as separate institutions. From 1933, female prisoners were held in the Female Division within HM Gaol Pentridge, under the charge of a Matron, while the former Metropolitan Gaol became D Division, the receiving division for the whole of Pentridge.
The consolidation of Pentridge meant that the prison system became more centralised, with most prisoners being received at Pentridge before being assessed, classified and then sent to other prisons. It was also the largest prison in Victoria, accounting for approximately half the prisoners in Victoria at any time.
Under the provisions of the Indeterminate Sentences Act 1907 (No. 2106), Pentridge was classified as a combination Reformatory Prison and Gaol, unlike most of the other prisons in Victoria which were classified as one or the other. The Penal Reform Act 1956 (No. 5961) abolished Reformatory Prisons and Pentridge became known as Her Majesty's Prison, Pentridge.
G Division was the prison's on-site hospital for prisoners.
The conditions at Pentridge were often not ideal, with many annual reports noting the poor conditions and overcrowding. As a maximum security prison, Pentridge was often the site of prisoner uprisings and protests, the most famous being the prison fire in the Jika Jika High Security Unit in 1987, which resulted in the deaths of five prisoners and the closure of the Jika Jika Unit.
In April 1995, the Office of Corrections ordered that the six main towers at Pentridge be closed, since most of the high security prisoners from the jail had been relocated to Barwon as part of the downgrading of Pentridge to a medium security prison.
Pentridge closed in December 1997 and was replaced by the privately run Port Phillip Prison.