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In the Penal Colony

John Frow

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To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II
V & VI


While it would be wrong to read the story as a determinate allegory, I propose to use it as a template with which to read the two distinct regimes of punishment operative at Port Arthur. In the older mode, punishment is above all directed at the body in the form of the public spectacle of flogging, the chains worn in the work gangs, and physically arduous and dangerous labour in the settlement's various industries - farming, quarrying, shipbuilding, logging. The continuity between work and punishment is perhaps best exemplified by the treadwheel which operated in the flour mill and granary complex for several years from 1845: a form of work which was repetitive, wearing, and in which any cessation of movement on the treads would immediately cause injury. This was at least an economically productive mill: many of those in use in England at the time were nothing more than devices 'for equalizing, measuring, regulating and timing the performance of toil';12 as they became more sophisticated, windsail masts were added to increase resistance to the rotation of the wheel, and subsequently even more precise brakes were devised to give precisely controlled and measured resistance. But this minute calculation of severity is characteristic of the Port Arthur regime as a whole. Hughes writes that

To scrutinize into the punishment records of Port Arthur men is to look into a microcosm of bureaucratic tedium. Its horror comes not from unrestrained cruelty (as the Gothic legends and popular horror stories of the place insisted) but rather from its opposite, the mechanical apportioning of strictly metered punishments designed to wear each prisoner down into bovine acceptance - Arthur's criterion of moral reform. It is like looking into the memory of some dull god interminably counting fallen sparrows on his fingers.13

Public flogging declined at Port Arthur from the mid-1840s and ceased in 1848. While the more traditional form of incarceration was continued in the Penitentiary, constructed between 1854 and 1857 by conversion of the flour mill and granary, a radically different model of the ends of the prison was realized in another institution. Built in 1848-9, initially to accommodate convicts transferred from Norfolk Island, the Model (or Separate) Prison worked on the principles of solitude, silence, anonymity, and moral reflection. Designed as a cross enclosed by a circle, it consisted of three wings of single cells and, in the fourth wing, a chapel in which prisoners were enclosed in separate tiered stalls, cut off from sight of each other. Punishment was by confinement in the totally dark 'dumb cells' in which all sense of the passage of time, and indeed almost all sensory experience, were lost. The universal rule of silence meant that neither prisoners nor guards were allowed to speak, orders being given by the sounding of a bell or by hand signals, or, in the chapel, by a mechanical device displaying the number of the prisoner whose turn it was to enter or to leave. Prisoners, said the regulations, 'must never read aloud, sing, whistle, dance or make any other noise in their Cells, exercise yards, corridors or Chapel'.14 Warders wore felt slippers in the corridors to muffle any sound they made as they patrolled. Meals were served to prisoners in their cells; in public spaces such as the corridors and the exercise yards they moved only with their faces covered by a 'beak' with eyeholes which extended as a flexible visor from their caps. Work, too - tailoring, shoemaking, the picking of oakum - was performed in solitude in the cells. In short, the Model Prison was so constructed as to destroy all social relations between prisoners and between prisoners and warders. It embodied a dream of total order, of a discipline so pervasive, so destructive of human contact, that each prisoner would have no alternative but to confront and wrestle with his moral state in penitential introspection. (Nothing, of course, guaranteed that any such thing would happen.)

This discipline is structured at once by a nobility of moral purpose and by the sort of nagging, petty meanness that required the guard in the penal colony to salute his superior officer's door on the stroke of every hour. The counterpart at Port Arthur as at Pentonville Prison in London, on which the Port Arthur prison was closely modelled was the tell-tale clock, an ingenious mechanical device standing in the Central Hall and monitoring the warders' attention to duty. As Ian Brand describes it,

It resembled a standard grandfather clock except that it had no hands and the dial was surrounded by 48 brass pegs, one for each quarter of an hour. As the dial rotated, each peg came under a striker at the top. Operated by a wire, the striker could push the peg below it into the rim of the dial, but only exactly at the quarter hour. It was the job of the duty Officer at night to strike the clock every fifteen minutes, and if he was a little late, the brass peg would not go in and the Head-keeper on his morning round could see immediately that the officer had been negligent.15

Clockwork time, a strictly divided and repeated routine, and punishment: these are the elements of an all-embracing discipline that extends to prisoners and warders alike.

If the apparatus that the explorer witnesses in the penal colony belongs to the old regime of spectacular punishment written on the body, it also, paradoxically, partakes of the spirituality of the new, 'humane' regimes of moral inculcation which operate on the prisoner's soul. This is the crucial transition made by the 'reformed' prisons of the nineteenth century, and it comes to permeate every detail of prison architecture, prison administration, and prison discipline. Monika Fludernik gives a schematic outline of the opposition between ideal types of the 'old' and 'new' regimes in the following table:

Old New
prison as waiting room for trial & execution prison as correctional and penal institution
darkness light
closure (dungeon) open to surveillance (bars)
filth cleanliness
idleness forced labour
dissolute behaviour enforced discipline
association with others solitary confinement
corporal constraint (chains) freedom of movement
cruelty humaneness
contact with outside (family) complete isolation from outside
social stratification within prison absolute standardization of treatment
corrupt prison administration efficiency and professionalism
repentance before possible execution repentance and disciplining supposed to result in production of a good citizen
sentence as punishment correction (privileges for good behaviour)
corporal punishment behavioural disciplining (focus on prisoners minds)
dungeon cell (panopticon)
prison as world world as prison
body as prison, freedom of mind depersonalization, brainwashing (mind as carceral body)16

Such a dichotomized chart drastically simplifies the complexity of transitions and intermixtures between different conceptions of the prison (and, for Port Arthur, the fact that the Penitentiary and the Model Prison represent no more than different faces of the reformed, disciplinary prison); but it does convey a notion of the starkness of the historical transformation.

At the centre of the reforms initiated by Beccaria, Howard and others in the late eighteenth century and pursued through the first half of the nineteenth was a notion of moral reformation which depended on the infliction of a 'just and unvarying quantum of pain'.17 Two things come together here: an operation effected upon the soul in accordance with religious conceptions of conscience and conversion from sin; and the development of forms of discipline which are equitable, non-arbitrary, mechanical, and thus independent of human will. Their object is a self conceived as 'at once isolated and transparent to view'.18 In Foucault's account, this birth of the prison as a technology of moral conversion is a moment of a larger elaboration of a disciplinarity which, emerging from monastic and military organizations of life, comes to govern the school, the workshop, the hospital, the reformatory, indeed all of those systems which at once control and productively form the 'isolated and transparent' self, its habits and its moral consciousness, within the complex of power/knowledge. The unrealized prototype of disciplinarity is Bentham's Panopticon, a utopian model prison formed on the equation of power with visibility and using architecture as its major instrument of moral correction. The question that preoccupied Bentham, writes Robin Evans, is: 'How could human behaviour, and through behaviour the human condition as a whole, be controlled and made certain by design?'.19 This question brings into play that mobilization of architecture in the service of virtue that Evans describes as underpinning the strategies of nineteenth-century prison reform, and which addressed two related sets of problems in existing regimes of punishment.

The first was the psychological problem that 'impalings, burnings, flayings and dismemberings could only serve to exacerbate the passions and increase the culprits' hatred of God. The problem was to describe a punishment that did not alienate in this way. The solution was to put mental anguish in the place of physical tortures.'20 Memory thus becomes the instrument of moral conversion, and its effects are to be heightened through an enforced solitude which will necessarily promote introspection. The cellular prison comes to stand at the centre of a 'technology of salvation'21 employed by the State rather than the Church.

The second problem is the reproduction of a culture of crime through the association of criminals in a confined space, and especially the cultural (and, although this is rarely made explicit, sexual) contamination that results from mixing different categories of prisoner (the hardened with the novice, for example). Two major solutions are proposed in the early nineteenth century, conveniently symbolized for contemporaries by the 'associated' system in operation at Auburn in New York, and the 'separate' system at Cherry Hill in Philadelphia. At the former, after an initial failed experiment in total solitary confinement, the regime consisted of hard labour in 'silent association', with any communication between convicts being rigorously punished. As Mayhew explains, however, this system is open to subversion by the prisoners' use of codes and muttered words to remain in contact with each other.* The separate system, in which a rule of total silence is enforced by the almost continuous separation of prisoners in their cells, removes this possibility. It raises the classification system 'to the highest level of generality',22 since each prisoner belongs to a category of his own, and is segregated accordingly; and its use of solitude depends upon three principles which had been central to the first wave of reform in the late eighteenth century: 'reformation through reflection, resistance to the spread of corruption through the prevention of communication, and deterrence through terror'.23

The logic of the reformed prison is that of an architecture which, working passively and continuously to shape and control experience, invests power in places rather than people. With the eventual triumph of the radial over the polygonal design of the prison, and thus of a logic of multiple, ramified classification and of an unlimited surveillance which comprehends the supervisors amongst the supervised,24 it comes to function in a fully performative manner as 'an instrument for the imposition of the very authority it had set out to symbolize'.25 Its most complete nineteenth-century expression is the prison at Pentonville, completed in 1848. This 'total institution',26 which Mayhew compares both to the Crystal Palace and to 'a bunch of Burlington Arcades', contains 520 cells which are, for all intents and purposes, separate and self-sufficient buildings, each one carefully connected to but isolated from each other by a complicated machinery of thermo-ventilation.27 Each prisoner is wrapped in anonymity; it is an offence for an officer to utter his name, and his face is covered, when he leaves his cell, in a cloth mask with slots for the eyes. As with the Model Prison at Port Arthur, the purpose of this machinery is 'to crush the will of its 450 inmates by means of absolutely inflexible routine, complete isolation and unvarying task-work, with each convict identically engaged in a twelve-hour day of cobbling or weaving'.28 As at Port Arthur, the effect of a regime of silence and solitude is to produce high levels of neurosis and insanity. Mayhew carefully documents the fact that 'the discipline pursued at this prison yields upwards of ten times more lunatics than should be the case according to the normal rate'; these figures, he writes, 'tell awful tales of long suffering and deep mental affliction; for the breaking down of the weaker minds is merely evidence of the intense moral agony that must be suffered by all except the absolutely insensible'.29 Ignatieff, finally, reports that 'those who observed prisoners upon their release noticed that many suffered from bouts of hysteria and crying. Others found the sounds of the street deafening and asked for cotton wool to stop up their ears. Still others frightened their families by a listless torpor that took weeks to shake off. Even those who thought they had got used to solitude found themselves dreaming about the prison long after.'30


In the Penal Colonycontinues with parts IV and V & VI. Or you may wish to return to parts I & II. ...

John Frow delivered this paper as a plenary speaker in April 1999 at an interdisciplinary conference, Refiguring History: Between the Psyche and the Polis, which was hosted by the University of Newcastle (upon Tyne), UK.


13 Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 297

14 Hughes, The Fatal Shore,p. 404.

15 Ian Brand, The 'Separate' or 'Model' Prison, Port Arthur (Launceston: Regal Publications, n.d.), Appendix I, p. 48.

16 Ibid., pp. 13-14.

17 Monika Fludernik, 'Carceral topography: spatiality, liminality and corporality in the literary prison', Textual Practice 13:1 (1999), p. 44.

18 Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 (1978; rpt. London: Penguin, 1989), p. 10.

19 John Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 201.

20 Evans, TheFabrication of Virtue,p. 196.

21 Ibid., p. 67.

22 Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain,p. 57.

23 Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862; rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1968), p. 101.

24 Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue,p. 325.

25 Ibid., p. 326.

26 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p. 177.

27 Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue,p. 294.

28 Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain,p. 11.

29 Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue,pp. 357, 360.

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