Prison ghost tours rattle the nerves

Dunedin Prison Charitable Trust volunteers Ken Burt (left) and John Thomson get into character...
Dunedin Prison Charitable Trust volunteers Ken Burt (left) and John Thomson get into character for a ghost tour at the former Dunedin Prison. In the background is Peter Caswell. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
The dark, cold corridors of the former Dunedin Prison echo once again to the sounds of rattling keys and shuffling feet.

But this time only the faint light of dancing torches illuminates the century-old Victorian brickwork as 14 people shuffle nervously down a blackened passage.

Some share quiet whispers and laughter, while others glance quickly from one yawning cell door to the next, peering into the blackness inside.

As they do, an iron door slams shut in a distance, sending an echo booming down abandoned corridors in some unseen part of the building.

Then, as the group creeps forward, a severed skeletal hand taped to a plastic stick reaches out from the shadows to grasp a shoulder, and a woman begins to scream.

Welcome to the start of a new, darker take on public tours of the 117-year-old facility by the Dunedin Prison Charitable Trust.

The trust, which bought the prison in 2012, has since begun running regular public tours on Saturday mornings.

However, trust volunteers have trialled a new concept - ghost tours, with a focus on frightening, as well as informing, those who venture inside.

The Otago Daily Times decided to join those creeping through the darkness of a building still heaving with the echoes of a century of stories.

That included tales of infamous prisoners such as baby killer Minnie Dean, held inside in 1885 before being hanged in Invercargill, and of David Bain, kept in a remand cell while on trial for his family's murder.

It also included inmates who attempted suicide, and the spot where in 1966 Constable Donald Stokes was fatally bashed by two inmates attempting to escape.

Trust volunteer and tour guide Ken Burt was a guard at the prison for 28 years until its closure in 2007, when he transferred to the Otago Corrections Facility.

He said the old prison's walls held other stories too, like that of the inmate who stripped, covered himself in soap and slipped through a laundry air vent to escape.

Although nobody had been executed inside the building, there had been deaths, both natural and self-inflicted, and the building was ''haunted''.

''It's just a great old building with a lot of history with it. It is a really, really scary place.''

The trial, which aimed to gauge public interest, would be repeated on Black Friday, March 13, and could become a regular event, he said.

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