Impression Bay Probation Station, c 1850 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)
The Probation System was an experiment in penal discipline unique to Van Diemen's Land. Introduced in 1839, it was modified several times from 1846 until it was abandoned altogether following the abolition of transportation to the colony in 1853.
The assignment system which preceded it – although widely regarded in the colony as an effective system of both punishment and reform (and one which suited the economic interests of the colonists) – had by the 1830s attracted much criticism in Great Britain. It was felt to be too inconsistent in its application, chiefly because the treatment assigned convicts received was more often determined by the character of their masters, rather than the nature of their crimes. It could either be too harsh, little removed from slavery, or too lax, with the convicts enjoying better physical conditions than they had left at home and subject to little discipline. In this view, assignment neither reformed the prisoners nor provided a deterrent to potential offenders in Britain.
Probation shared a theoretical base with the penitentiary system; the key principles being that both punishment and reform could be achieved by separate confinement and a regime of hard labour, religious instruction and education. The system sought to punish with a just but dread certainty. It required all prisoners to be classified according to the severity of their offences, with the separation of individuals and classes employed to contain the corrupting influence of the more hardened offenders. All convicts were to be subjected to successive stages of punishment, commencing with a period of confinement and labour in gangs: at a penal settlement for life-sentenced prisoners, or at a probation station for all others. If they progressed satisfactorily through several stages of decreasing severity, they received a probation pass and became available for hire to the settlers. Gangs of passholders awaiting employment remained at the stations and continued to labour on public works. Sustained good conduct eventually led to a ticket-of-leave or a pardon. More than eighty probation stations operated in various locations, for varying periods, throughout the settled districts. Often hastily and poorly built, few remain, and most of those in ruins.
In practice the scheme was a disastrous failure, undermined by poor planning and administration, inadequate funding, huge numbers, and an unforeseen economic depression. With little demand for the labour of the passholders, the system was overwhelmed. For the prisoners it brought increased misery and for the colonists it brought the worst of both worlds: increasing numbers of convicts among them, whose potentially corrupting presence was no longer offset by their economic contribution. Far from achieving its reform objectives, the system bred idleness, disorder and vice, not least of which for contemporaries was an allegedly dramatic increase in 'unnatural crime'. Furthermore, the entire system became an increasing burden to them as London sought to transfer more and more of the costs of transportation to the colony. The failure of probation was largely responsible for the downfall of Lt-Governor Eardley-Wilmot, and it turned the majority of colonists into implacable opponents of transportation itself.
Further reading: I Brand, The convict probation system, Hobart, 1990.