Australia’s largest penal station…
Port Arthur was named after Van Diemen’s Land lieutenant governor George Arthur. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but it is best known for being a penal colony.
From 1833, until the 1850s, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. In addition Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system.
Port Arthur was one example of the “Separate Prison Typology” (sometimes known as the Model prison), which emerged from Jeremy Bentham’s theories and his panopticon. The prison was completed in 1853 but then extended in 1855. The layout of the prison was fairly symmetrical. It was a cross shape with exercise yards at each corner. The prisoner wings were each connected to the surveillance core of the Prison as well as the Chapel, in the Center Hall. From the this surveillance hub each wing could be clearly seen, although individual cells could not. This is how the Separate Prison at Port Arthur differed from the original theory of the Panopticon.
The Separate Prison System also signaled a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment. It was thought that the hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations only served to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways. For example, food was used to reward well-behaved prisoners and as punishment for troublemakers. As a reward, a prison could receive larger amounts of food or even luxury items such as tea, sugar and tobacco. As punishment, the prisoners would receive the bare minimum of bread and water. Under this system of punishment the “Silent System” was implemented in the building. Here prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon the actions which had brought him there.Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed mental illness from the lack of light and sound. This was an unintended outcome although the asylum was built right next to the Separate Prison. In many ways Port Arthur was the pin-up for many of the penal reform movement, despite shipping, housing and slave-labour use of convicts being as harsh, or worse, than others stations around the nation.
The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water (rumoured by the administration to be shark-infested). The 30m wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that was the only connection to the mainland was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps and half-starved dogs.
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