Boggo Road Gaol may have a long, controversial history, but it has the potential to be a southside heritage treasure. Owned by the Queensland Government, the former prison is surrounded by thriving arts and education communities, is well serviced by public transport, is built to last, and has the layout and structure to accommodate a diverse range of activities. With the right vision in place, Boggo Road could become an innovative, dynamic, community-focussed Arts and Heritage Hub, especially as its contentious history can inform the events that take place there with themes of punishment, rehabilitation, redemption and reconciliation.

The opportunity is certainly there. The surviving buildings – once part of a much larger prison complex – currently stand empty due to nearby construction work. They will reopen sometime in the near future, and so now is the time to plan for something new.

There are, however, a couple of problems in the way.

To begin, a brief timeline: The first prison (for men) opened on the reserve in 1883, when Annerley Road was still named ‘Boggo Road’, and a second prison (for women) was added in 1903, and this is the one still standing. Other buildings came and went over time, but the gradual closure and demolition of the prisons happened during 1989-2000.

The first problem for Boggo Road is that has been privately managed for a decade. Although it operated successfully as a not-for-profit heritage site from the 1990s, when Campbell Newman became premier he controversially handed interim control to a small business in 2012, making it the only privately-managed major heritage prison in Australia. The deal was secretive. Questions were asked in parliament, journalists probed for details, and even an independent report by the site developers recommended that the site be returned to not-for-profit management. The Newman Government, however, dug in to maintain the status quo.

The results of a decade of private management can be assessed now. The site has been very much underutilised and stands empty most of the time. It is also overpriced, with entry prices being the most expensive for any heritage prison in Australia.

Community groups have been excluded from the site, and there has been no voice for professional historians or First Nations peoples in the discourse about site history. Meanwhile, the real history of the prison has become secondary to its promotion as a ‘haunted house’.

The other problem is that development of the site has not been a government priority, despite heritage prisons in other Australian states being successfully managed by various levels of government, and often winning major tourism awards. Here, meaningful community consultation regarding the management of the place has been practically non-existent.

This is a shame because Boggo Road really could become an outstanding public asset, used from early morning to night, seven days a week. Creating a not-for-profit Arts and Heritage Hub would mean that the buildings could host community meeting spaces; live acoustic music performances; live drama performances; history tours; a prison history research library; pop-up artist’s spaces; prison history debates and discussion panels; music and drama rehearsal space; music and drama workshops; museum displays; film production and screenings; hospitality events; art and photography exhibition space. These are just some examples of potential uses.

There has already been demonstrated interest in a Boggo Road Arts and Heritage Hub from a range of history, drama, music, and other art organisations, and it is an idea that has public support. All it takes now is for the Queensland Government to listen and realise just how great this place could be.

Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society has created a petition calling on the Government to create a better vision for Boggo Road, that will unlock its potential and create an innovative, dynamic and unique Heritage and Arts Centre that will become one of Queensland’s most successful heritage treasures.