The Main Cell Block was built by convicts to house up to 1000 men. It has changed little from the 1850s when it was first constructed and contains much evidence of the penal system implemented at that time.
Like the other elements of the Convict Establishment (as the Fremantle Prison was originally known), the Main Cell Block was constructed from limestone quarried on the site. At each end of the four storey cell range were two large dormitory wards known as Association Rooms. These housed up to 80 men sleeping in hammocks and were designed for those men soon to receive their Ticket of Leave or as a reward for good behaviour. The single cells which made up the rest of the Prison were a meagre 7 feet by 4 feet (1.2 metre by 2.1 metre). Dominating the Main Cell Block is the Anglican Chapel, the only building without bars on the windows.
When Fremantle Prison was built each cell was provided with running water. The “s” bend was not yet discovered and by the 1860s the basins were removed due to foul smells that came back up the pipes. The poor quality of fittings also resulted in water leakage that formed puddles which attracted insects. This was another factor in the removal of basins. They were not replaced. Toilets were never installed in cells and prisoners continued to use buckets until the Prison closed in 1991.
In the late 1890s a Royal Commission into conditions at the Prison resulted in an increase in cell size, this was achieved by removing a wall between two cells. Walls were also erected within the cell range to created four separate divisions. These allowed for the segregation of men according to the nature of their crime.
In the 1920s electricity was introduced to the Main Cell Block. Only lights were installed and initially could only be used between April and November. Power points were not installed in the cells until the 1980s.
Amongst the highlights for visitors to the site today are refurbished cells which reproduces conditions in cells across the life of the Prison. In the six cells, the changes to living arrangements are represented, showing how little the Prison changed in the 136 years it operated.