Let’s Go To Prison!

Nobody wants to go to prison. Well, I think I can safely say that most of us don’t want to go to prison. But how about being sent halfway around the world, far away from everything and everyone you know, to serve your time? Oh, and you’re a nine year old boy. This is the fate that befell many of Great Britain’s more unfortunate offenders, including women and children, in the mid 1800s, the time when Port Arthur and other locations in Tasmania operated as penal settlements.

While in Tasmania hanging out with my USCG friends from the visiting icebreaker Polar Star, we visited the famous (or infamous) Port Arthur Historic Site that is now a popular tourist destination. Once again it was raining, and the place was infested with tourists, so I left the camera gear in the car. Today I would be a tourist, albeit one without a camera.

What started out on the Tasman Peninsula southeast of the capitol of Hobart as a timber station in 1830 quickly grew into something far bigger. We as Americans are partly responsible, in that after our War of Independence, Britain could no longer send their prisoners to America – it seems the export of prisoners was a major factor in their economy – so they sent them to Australia instead.

It was supposed to be a good thing, in the authorities’ minds anyway, in that they were trying to establish a modern penal system based on the latest techniques for reforming multiple offenders, rebellious personalities, and other problem inmates that this place was designed to absorb. It was a time when physical punishment was being replaced with psychological punishment – or perhaps it was just supplementing it, if you read some of the actual stories from the era – in order to achieve the desired outcome of reformed inmates.

The first and most obvious psychological factor was the hopelessness of escape. Port Arthur was in some ways like America’s Alcatraz Island, and while not on an island, it might as well have been. Remember that narrow neck called Eaglehawk Neck that helps to keep diseased Tasmanian devils off the peninsula? We talked about it in It’s Zoo Time! a couple of weeks ago. Well, long before it was used to keep the Tassie devils out, it was used to keep a different kind of devils in – the prisoners, that is. Faced with a 30m (98ft) wide strip of sand, fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs, there was almost no hope for escape. And swimming? Whether true or not, the waters were rumored to be shark-infested. No, the only way out for lifers was death, and many chose that option over the so-called life here at Port Arthur and other prison colonies.

Those of you still paying attention may have noticed that I said “almost no hope for escape”. In fact, over the years people did try, and every once in a while some would pull it off. This often involved stealing a boat and heading out to sea. One escapee was the notorious Martin Cash, called a bushranger for his ability to survive in the harsh and inhospitable Australian bush. In fact, he was so good at escaping that he did it twice. Now, you have to ask yourself at this point, if you are escaping multiple times, doesn’t that imply that the majority of your escapes were not, ultimately, all that successful? Just a thought.

A wing of the Separate Prison, in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

A wing of the Separate Prison, in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia – Courtesy of Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority

Probably the most infamous aspect of this new and improved Model prison, as it was called, was the use of solitary confinement for offences that occurred at the prison. Port Arthur was the site of what was called the Separate Prison, built in 1850 and designed for isolation. And we Americans were partly responsible for that as well, having built the first one at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The idea had originated with Englishman John Howard, but we were the first to try it in 1829.

Anyway, Port Arthur’s consisted of four wings comprised a central corridor flanked by rows of solitary confinement cells. Now, even if you haven’t personally been incarcerated, you’ve seen solitary confinement cells on TV and in movies. Yeah, well, these were different. These were designed for total sensory deprivation. Heavy, thick sandstone walls separated prisoners from each other. Four – that’s four, in case you were dozing off – huge doors cut out all light and sound from outside. Prisoners spent 23 hours a day in these cells, emerging only for exercise, school, and chapel. Even in the chapel they were isolated in separate cubicles.

Port Arthur Prison Cell

A refurnished cell in ‘A’ Wing, showing the way in which men had to arrange the items with which they were issued – courtesy of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority

While at the prison, we had the opportunity to enter one of these cells and close the door behind us. In these cells you don’t wait for your eyes to adjust to “the dark” – there is no adjusting. Total darkness is total darkness. Did I mention the four doors?

We also had the opportunity to visit the cubicles in the chapel. They were designed in such as way that all you could see was the altar straight ahead. Prisoners were led in one at a time, sent down each row to the farthest cubicle, and that door closed. Then the next was ushered in until the row was full. It was really quite bizarre.

The authorities hoped that with all of this silence, darkness, and isolation, the prisoners would get contemplative and reflect on their bad behavior. Of course, what they got was insane. That wasn’t a problem, though, because Port Arthur had it’s very own insane asylum, conveniently located right next to the Separate Prison! How’s that for luck?

For the Term of His Natural Life, a book written by Marcus Clarke and first published in the Australian Journal between 1870 and 1872 before being released as a novel in 1874, is given some credit for putting an end to the Model Prison experiment at Port Arthur and other sites. I don’t know how true that is, as the prison was winding down operations in the 1870s anyway, the prison population aging, becoming infirm, or going insane to the point where the economic viability of the operation was quickly declining. This implies that new prisoners had ceased to arrive from Great Briton. But the book is credited with exposing the abuses of the system to a wide audience in England, thus insuring that this type of experiment would not be tried again any time soon.

I also know that the book is an excellent read. I bought an e-book version and took it with me to Tasmania on my phone to give me a dose of the history of the place. Known as a novelisation of life as a convict in early Australian history, I think of it as a historical novel. While fiction, it is based on Clarke’s own research, including a visit by the author himself to Port Arthur. I highly recommend the book if you have any interest in this subject at all.

OK, that’s it for this week. I hope you can stay out of prison until next week, when we’ll begin winding down operations in Tasmania and prepare to send the Polar Star on its mission to Antarctica!

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3 Responses to “Let’s Go To Prison!”

  1. Max Pillie says:

    Thanks for the history lesson Ed.

    • Ed Leckert says:

      You’re welcome, Max. You should see the stuff I left out – I could have gone on for days! For example, one guy tried to escape disguised as a kangaroo! The plan backfired when hungry guards at the neck decided to make a meal out him. He threw off the pelt and surrendered before they had a chance to shoot him. 🙂

  2. Catherine says:

    I caught the usage of British spelling of words in your text. Interesting information.