Criminal characters - Prisoners and Punishment  - Survey

Keep reading below for an overview of prisons and punishment in Australia. Or click here to navigate to an interactive map of prison sites throughout Australia across time.

Birth of the prison system

The forcible detention of convicted offenders in prisons or places of detention can be traced to ancient times. The Athenian Greeks, for example, initially used imprisonment as an alternative penalty for those who could not afford to pay the fines associated with committing different criminal acts. While prisons have been in use in most regional and historical contexts, they have not always been the main mode of punishment for criminal offending in the way they are in Australian society today.

Port Arthur Penitentiary, Tasmania.

Port Arthur Penitentiary, Tasmania, 2015, photographed by Colin Chick. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The colonisation of Australia by the British in the late eighteenth century was prompted by the transportation system, itself an alternative to imprisonment. Convicts transported to the penal colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia were – for the most part – not kept in confinement upon arrival. While prison-like structures or convict ‘factories’ were used to house newly-arrived or troublesome convicts, in the main they were licensed out to work for free persons in the community under the assignment system. During this era, convicts who reoffended or free persons who committed crimes were usually sentenced not to gaol but to corporal punishment (flogging), transportation to secondary penal colonies with harsher discipline regimes, or execution.

It was not until the cessation of penal transportation in the mid nineteenth century, which also coincided with the abolition of the use of capital punishment for a wide range of non-violent offences, that imprisonment became the main means of disposing of persons criminally convicted. There were two types of institutions where prisoners were incarcerated during the nineteenth and early twentieth century: prisons used to detain individuals convicted of crimes that carried sentences of at least a few months’ imprisonment, if not far longer terms; and police gaols – so named because they were usually attached to police stations – used to incarcerate who had been sentenced to only short stays of a few days or weeks, as well as individuals awaiting trial.

The development of the modern prison system in the nineteenth century was predicated upon the belief they could function as both punitive and rehabilitative institutions. Both objectives have remained important to discussions and theorising about imprisonment, although the weight placed on each objective in public discourse has fluctuated depending on the social context of the period, as well as the viewpoint of individual commentators. Efforts to use prisons as a means of reforming prisoners have seen various experimentations across time, although most efforts at rehabilitation fall into one of the following areas: providing educational and occupational training; intervening in prisoners’ mental health or substance abuse issues; developing schemes to reintegrate prisoners into society upon release; and differentiating between types of prisoners in order to tailor discipline and punishment to them.

Alternative punishments to imprisonment continued or evolved in the different Australian jurisdictions across time. Principal among these non-custodial sentences in the nineteenth century was the fine. Fines were used liberally to punish a wide variety of the offences against public order (e.g. public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, vagrancy) that comprised the bulk of criminal charges laid by police during this time. Those who could not pay their fines were instead committed for a term of imprisonment; magistrates would specify a given term required in default of the fine at sentencing. In the 1880s, the concept of suspended sentencing was introduced in South Australia and Queensland in a limited way in reference to first offenders convicted of less serious crimes. Suspended sentences became more commonly used for a variety of offenders from the interwar period. The late twentieth century witnessed growing interest in developing other types of sentencing alternatives, such as victim-offender mediation, community contracts and treatment programs. Such alternatives were aimed at decarceration, that is inducing a decline in the number of offenders sentenced to prison, given research has shown its limited effectiveness in reforming criminals. Such alternatives, however, remained largely theoretical or were only employed in a limited fashion, with the early twenty-first century in Australia seeing mass incarceration, particularly of Indigenous peoples, and rampant prison overcrowding. 

Prison architecture

Prisons multiplied rapidly in the Australian colonies between the 1850s and 1880s as the migration stimulated by the gold rushes brought both a growing population and rising crime. Whereas the gaols built during the convict period were simple structures built from wood, the prison complexes constructed during the late nineteenth century were much grander projects. Many of the gaols built in this era remained in use into the late twentieth and even twenty-first century. Initially, prisons were built close to courthouses, but as time went on they were removed to the outer edges of urban development. Some colonies also located penal establishments on islands, such as Cockatoo Island off Sydney, St Helena Island off Brisbane and Rottnest Island off Perth, in order to use the open water as a barrier to escape.

Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Prison, 1843 [original 1791]. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

An important consideration that dominated prison designs from the nineteenth century was that of surveillance. In the late eighteenth century, English philosopher and prison reformer Jeremy Bentham developed the ‘panopticon’ model, a circular prison design in which all inmates of an institution would be able to be observed from the vantage point at the centre, but without the inmates being able to tell if they were being watched at any given moment. Bentham believed that this system of total surveillance by an unseen eye would not only inhibit insubordination by prisoners while inside, but would have a rehabilitative effect by exerting a power over the prisoners’ minds, gradually shifting their mentality by disciplining them to instinctively accept authority and conform to rules for governing behaviour. Bentham’s panopticon prison model was never fully implemented anywhere; however, his ideas influenced the design of many nineteenth-century prisons, particularly radial prisons, which feature several long spokes of prison blocks laid out in a circle or semi-circle around a central guard tower. The imposing nature of nineteenth-century prison architecture also reflected the shift in focus from physical to psychological punishment that characterised Bentham’s plans and the emerging modern attitudes towards imprisonment.


Another important concern that influenced how Victorian era prisons were designed was the need for separation. The ‘separate system’, pioneered in the United States from the 1820s, promoted the idea that keeping prisoners in relative isolation for at least part of their sentence or daily routine was necessary in order to encourage the personal reflection necessary for moral rehabilitation. This prompted a move away from dormitory-style rooms to individual cells. While the ideal was that prisoners would inhabit these cells alone, overcrowding meant that most nineteenth-century-built prisons in Australia were forced to hold two or three prisoners to a cell.

Rather than building new prisons, existing facilities tended to be expanded during the twentieth century by adding new wings, which allowed greater classification between prisoners held on one site. The few new institutions to emerge during the interwar era were the result of the enthusiasm for the idea of ‘prison farms’, places where it was imagined that productive work in healthy, outdoor environments would revitalise and transform prisoners while helping them learn agricultural skills that could help them find work post-release. There was little other investment in prison upkeep or modifications, and by the late twentieth century the colonial-built prisons were becoming increasingly dilapidated and incapable of holding the rising number of inmates being sentenced to them. This led to a second era of prison building from the 1970s.


Classifying prisoners 

Developing ever-more refined systems for classifying and separating prisoners from each other was one of the major objectives of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century penal reformers. Prisons in the early to mid-nineteenth century gathered together a wide range of individuals under one roof:
a)    men and women sentenced to both short and long terms of imprisonment;
b)    juveniles convicted mostly for minor offences;
c)    children of female inmates;
d)    prisoners awaiting trial; and
e)    destitute and mentally ill persons for whom they were few or no other mechanisms of care.

Gradually these groups started to be accommodated in different types of institutions, different prisons or in separate buildings or wings within the same prison.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg, 2015, photographed by Michael J Fromholtz. Built in 1851, Melbourne’s Pentridge prison was modelled on the panopticon principle, with many separate divisions for different types of prisoners. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The initial focus of reformers’ efforts was separating prisoners by sex, a move that started during the transportation era. During the late nineteenth century, attention shifted towards the construction of purpose-built female prisons, although only in New South Wales and Victoria were the numbers of women prisoners great enough to demand an entirely separate facility. The removal of children and juveniles from prisons was the next major target of prison reforms. From the early 1860s, legislation began to be introduced across the Australian colonies to enable children convicted of crimes (as well as others deemed to be neglected) to be sentenced to industrial schools and reformatories. This then spurred more general concerns about keeping young adult offenders or those new to crime away from more hardened inmates while serving sentences. By the late nineteenth century this was being addressed both by classifying and separating such inmates into different prisons or prison buildings, and at a pre-incarceration level by allowing magistrates to divert offenders to one of the array of other institutions that developed during this period, including charity homes, lunatic asylums and inebriate retreats.

Classifications within prisons based on inmates’ sex, age, perceived dangerousness and conduct while inside continued to be imposed during the early twentieth century. This sometimes meant that inmates moved frequently between different wards or facilities based on administrators’ changing views of their behaviour or the corruptive threat they posed to other prisoners. As prisoner numbers began to rise from the 1950s, however, the concept of classification often came second to question of which institution had available room to house incoming inmates. 

Discipline in prison 

Historically, discipline was enforced within prisons through a variety of measures. Some of these continue, while others are no longer used. It has been theorised by Michel Foucault and others that the great innovation of nineteenth-century disciplinary institutions was their replacement of physical with psychological means of control, but physical punishments also persisted in Australia (as in other parts of the world) into the twentieth century.

Relics of convict discipline, Hobart, Tasmania, circa 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Whipping, a practice commonly associated in the popular imagination with the convict era, underwent a gradual decline. While its use against women was prohibited from the 1820s, into the late nineteenth century it continued to be administered as a sentence to both adult and juvenile males. Such corporal punishment was not inflicted though as a means of maintaining discipline within prisons; rather, it was an additional punishment ordered at sentencing, usually in respect to sexual offenders. The incidence of such punishment actually being administered in prisons by the 1890s was very low. An exception was in Western Australia, where it underwent a revival at the turn-of-the-century in use against Aboriginal prisoners. Although rare, whippings continued to be occasionally administered in prisons across Australia into the twentieth century, in some states even into the 1960s.

Some punishments blended a physical aspect with a more psychological effect, such as head shaving. Forcibly shaving women’s heads – not for mere hygienic reasons, but for punitive purposes – was another convict-era punishment that persisted in some institutions into the late nineteenth century. This was deemed a particularly effective form of punishment for women because of the profound mental anguish prisoners were described experiencing when marked out in this way; it was thus seen as a reasonable alternative to corporal punishment once whippings were no longer seen as an appropriate sentence for women. However, the practice also had its opponents dating from the convict era, with one of the principal objections being that it served to defeminise women, thereby making them worse by further divorcing them from the gentle and subservient characteristics considered ‘natural’ to women.

Another largely mental punishment pioneered in the nineteenth century was solitary confinement. Colonial prisons trialled various means of isolating prisoners from each other, from keeping all prisoners totally isolated from each other in separate cells throughout their prison term to using it for a period during their initial confinement to make them more amenable to prison discipline. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, most prisons were using short periods of solitary confinement as a punishment for infractions committed inside prison. Sometimes judges would also assign inmates a period of solitary confinement as part of their sentence. Isolation was usually accompanied by dietary punishments such as being limited to bread and water or receiving half-rations, although these measures could also be used on their own. However, the psychological effects of extended isolation were already being recognised by the late nineteenth century, leading to limitations on the amount of time an inmate was typically detained in solitary without any outside contact (usually no more than 7 days at the most, with the bulk of infractions typically earning a period of 24-72 hours). Solitary confinement or ‘segregated custody’ continues to be used in Australian prisons today, although there have been calls for its elimination, particularly in youth justice facilities. 

Prison life

Another factor that has historically been asserted as important in maintaining prison discipline has been keeping inmates occupied while inside prison. One of the major challenges regularly discussed by nineteenth-century prison administrators was finding work that prisoners could be usefully employed at while confined. Not only was this a means to regulate inmate behaviour by keeping them focused on tasks, but it was often an intended part of the punishment itself, with many prisoners during this period specifically sentenced by the judge not just to imprisonment, but imprisonment with ‘hard labour’. The range of occupations that male prisoners could be put to was usually far more extensive than that open to women, with rock-breaking, farming and factory operations all common pursuits to which men were put while inside prison. Male prisoners were also more likely to be taken outside the prison confines to undertake work during the day, such as road-building and construction work.

Prisoners working in the laundry at the female division of Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, 1903. Source: State Library of Queensland.

One of the toughest duties regularly assigned to women prisoners during the nineteenth century was picking oakum, which involved tearing apart the ropes used in shipbuilding and sailing so that the resulting small fibre strings could be recycled into other uses. Over time, female prisoners were more likely to be set to what were considered appropriately ‘feminine’ occupations, such as sewing, cooking or operating laundries. Trusted female prisoners would also be used as servants within the gaoler’s home.

These forms of labour were always intended as a means of readying inmates for employment upon release, but this emphasis on vocational training became more pronounced from the interwar era. A number of prison farms were established throughout Australia during this period in order to provide training in a range of agricultural work that could lead to jobs with the rural workforce upon release. From the post-war era there was also an effort to provide more general educational programmes to prisoners in order to enable them to finish schooling or receive recognised qualifications.

Further reading

Finnane, Mark. Punishment in Australian Society. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997.

O’Toole, Sean. The history of Australian corrections. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006.