Criminal characters - Prisoners and Punishment -
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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
Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Prison, 1843
[original 1791]. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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.
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;
convicted mostly for minor offences;
c) children of female inmates;
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.
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
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.
Finnane, Mark. Punishment
in Australian Society. Melbourne: Oxford University
O’Toole, Sean. The
history of Australian corrections. Sydney: UNSW