Prisons


Henry Melville, 'His Majesty's Jail, Hobart Town', 1834 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

Prisons developed directly in association with the system of convict transportation. Over fifty years from 1803 to 1853, 73,500 convicts were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Most undertook assigned work, but those who transgressed the law were sentenced to 'secondary punishment stations', prisons where the work and punishment were more brutal than normal. The first stations opened were Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour (182133) and Maria Island (182532). The last station opened was Port Arthur in 1830.

A prison was built in Murray Street, Hobart in 1817, and a convict barracks in Campbell Street in 1821. Used progressively as a civilian prison from 1846, it became Hobart's prison after convict transportation ended in 1853. The Murray Street prison was dismantled the following year. Meanwhile, the Launceston prison was built in 1827. Women convicts and children were housed at female factories, at the Cascades in Hobart (opened 1828), George Town (1829), Launceston (1832) and Ross (1847). Women in such prisons worked at laundry and sewing tasks reflecting the status of the institutions as workhouses and places of manufacture.

In 1834, a Boys' Prison was established at Point Puer, a few miles from Port Arthur. It operated until 184849, and featured education, trade training and religious instruction as a means to reform, rather than simply punish, juvenile offenders.

A new type of prison building was constructed at Port Arthur between 1848 and 1852. Unlike a 'barracks', it divided prisoners into separate cells. According to principles of the 'penitentiary', such segregation, accompanied by strict rules of silence, would allow inmates space in which to reflect on their crimes and thus be reformed. After transportation ceased in 1853, Port Arthur remained a prison until its closure in 1877.

By 1900 only two prisons remained: Hobart Prison (Campbell Street) and Launceston Prison. Female prisoners were kept in each location in an annex attached to the male prison. The Launceston Prison mainly acted as a temporary repository for offenders about to go to court in the north and north-west. Both prisons were heavily criticised, and subject to numerous royal commission investigations. The Launceston Prison was closed in 1917, and its functions were transferred to the police watch house. Male prisoners were finally moved out of the Hobart Prison in 1960; female prisoners had to wait until 1963. Partly in response to constant negative criticism of the prison, those inmates considered less dangerous were offered places at Hayes Prison Farm, established in 1937.

In 1960 a new male prison was opened at Risdon. A separate prison for women was built on the site in 1963. In 1974, a low security unit, later named the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison, was added. In 1978, a special prison hospital was built, which could house persons suffering mental illness who were subject to the criminal justice system. In 1999, the Hobart Remand Centre was completed. Located between the Hobart Police Station and the Court of Petty Sessions, it provides accommodation for offenders awaiting trial. In 2004, the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison was closed, as part of a re-development project on the site. A newly rebuilt facility, incorporating both the men's and women's prisons, was opened in 2007.

Further reading: J Hirst, 'The Australian experience', in N Morris & D Rothman (eds), The Oxford history of the prison, New York, 1995; C Evans, A pink palace?, Hobart, 2004.

Rob White