Are Modern Prisons Too Comfy? Lamenting the Loss of Our Penal Colonies

Farewell to old England forever,

Farewell to my rum coes as well,

Farewell to the well-known Old Bailey

Where I used for to cut such a swell.

So go the opening lines of the 19th century sea shanty ‘Botany Bay’, describing the prelude to one of history’s most infamous voyages; the convict transport ship from England to the penal colonies of Australia.

Convicts en route to Botany Bay
Convicts en route to Botany Bay

On Monday I wrote of the historical purpose of the leper colony in isolating from society those deemed undesirable by way of their physical condition. Penal colonies have served a similar purpose, albeit their establishment was based on the criminality of certain individuals rather than any disease they might possess.

There is much debate these days about overcrowded prisons and some argue, quite reasonably, that incarceration has become too much of a comfort for felons. It is quite easy to lament the loss of our overseas penal stations, which served an effective purpose.

Not only did overseas penal colonies remove criminals as far as possible from society – therefore providing enhanced security to honest citizens whilst also offering a deterrence to would-be offenders – they also created a powerful labour supply. Convict labour (also epitomised by the American chain gangs of history) provides a cheap workforce that, whilst often insolent, is a far more productive device than an imprisoned congress of knaves.

Australian convict log. For many, life meant life (Source: National Archives)
Australian convict log. For many, life meant life (Source: National Archives)

We know, of course, that many of the penal colonies were ruled with an iron fist, with dreadfully tough living/working conditions and vicious punishments for miscreants. One need only read Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life to get an impression of how barbaric such a life could be. Modern-day labour camps for political dissidents, such as those imposed by Stalin and Mao and the current North Korean regime, are often worse than there Victorian counterparts.

The horrific conditions of Stalin's Gulags (and the frequent imprisonment of innocents) made them counter-productive
The horrific conditions of Stalin’s Gulags (and the frequent imprisonment of innocents) made them counter-productive

But whilst I would not advocate a return to such primitive penal servitude, the convict population of the developed world could be put to better use, particularly those repeat offenders who have little prospect of ‘bettering themselves’.

Prison is, ultimately, a severe form of punishment. It should not be enjoyed in any way and as a deterrent can only be effective if some harsh conditions are imposed. Even resurrecting the historic penal colonies in far-flung outposts is not inconceivable. Britain, for instance, still owns minuscule islets across the globe and the Antarctic is rich for exploitation. What better way of securing international cooperation in the polar regions than by establishing multinational penal colonies designed for the exploitation of the regions’ natural resources?

Just a thought.


Modern-Day Lepers: Ebola virus forces Sierra Leone Lockdown

A nationwide lockdown in Sierra Leone to combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus has been deemed a success by the government in Freetown, despite some skepticism amongst international health groups. People have been effectively confined to their homes in an attempt to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease and to allow health workers to visit infected people.

Deserted streets in a Sierra Leone slum
Deserted streets in a Sierra Leone slum

The response – in effect a national quarantine – is a drastic measure which demonstrates the desperation of the West African country to tackle an outbreak that has claimed the lives of more than 500 of its citizens.

Imposing the lockdown is a modern take on the leper colonies of history. By isolating those afflicted by disease, others cannot be affected by direct transmission. It is a simple solution, although one very difficult to implement on the scale seen in Sierra Leone.

Leper colonies date back to at least the 13th century and, along with similar asylums and refuges, had widespread global use until the early 20th century. Conditions at these institutions ranged from the diabolical to the pristine, many of them run by monastic orders following in the footsteps of Saint Lazarus.

Whilst it is now known that leprosy is not particularly contagious, it was long feared that even remote contact with sufferers was enough for the unpleasant disease to be transmitted. The social stigma attached to the disease further encouraged the removal of lepers from public viewing, a practice still not uncommon in parts of the developing world.

Some leper colonies offered a safe haven from public abuse; others were more like prisons
Some leper colonies offered a safe haven from public abuse; others were more like prisons

With space is such a premium in an overpopulated world, the ability to quarantine large groups of people has become increasingly difficult. Imposing a Freetown-style lockdown is not a sustainable solution; leper colonies are far more manageable, albeit their necessity for maintaining public health is somewhat dubious.

Disease prevention is as much about altering misconceptions and challenging traditional notions as it is about finding an effective cure. Despite the knowledge that leprosy is preventable, treatable and only mildly contagious, the perceived need for leper colonies remains in some countries.

Ebola, on the other hand, is highly contagious and quickly proves fatal. Despite this, many families of those infected by Ebola refuse medical treatment, opting instead for ‘traditional cures’, whilst refusing to allow the isolation of those affected.

Implementing a military-style lockdown to combat these counter-productive practices, whilst useful in the short-term, is no solution. Education and raised awareness are the only hope of lessening the impact of this tragic outbreak.

Campaigns to prevent the spread of Ebola are under away
Campaigns to prevent the spread of Ebola are under away

A Nation Divided Against Itself? Scotland’s Crucial Referendum

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s Scottish independence referendum, a nation will find itself divided. How significant this will be going forward, and the ramifications it may have for the United Kingdom, remains to be seen.

Referendum on Scottish independence

This referendum itself is unusual in that it has been sanctioned by the government from which the breakaway province is trying to secede. Many similar referendums have been conducted unilaterally, declared by the separatists themselves (as witnessed in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine recently) whilst being declared illegal and invalid by other states concerned.

In 1958, the French government announced a widespread constitutional referendum that would impact on its overseas territories. Accepting the constitution in a national referendum would make France’s colonies members of the French Community, with a view to future independence. A ‘no’ vote would mean a severing of ties with Paris and immediate secession.

Ultimately, only French Guinea would reject the constitution, 95% of the population voting ‘no’ in their referendum. For the other territories, a similarly large percentage voted ‘yes’ and joined the French Community without any serious debate. These results (with the exception of Guinea) show the ease with which unanimity can be achieved when there is little at stake in a referendum. In this case, the status quo was effectively being preserved.

However, in 1961, when the Algerian War of Independence had entered its eighth bloody year, France announced a referendum asking:

“Do you approve the bill submitted to the French people by the President of the Republic and concerning the self-determination of the populations of Algeria and the organization of the public authorities in Algeria prior to self-determination”.

Algeria had a large French colonist population, complicating any independence referendum
Algeria had a large French colonist population, complicating any independence referendum

69.5% of the Algerian population voted ‘yes’, 30.5% ‘no’. This substantial minority vote against the bill is testament to the more divisive nature of the issue at stake. Self-determination was not full independence. In principal it sounded appealing, and offered the potential for independence in the near future. But for some people, who had fought the French regime bitterly since 1954, it was not enough. It helped to stoke rivalry within the Algerian population, in addition to between Algerians and indigenous French colonists, in the final year of the War.

Scotland is not in a state of war like Algeria was in the 1950s and ’60s. Nor is it directly colonised and dictated to. Some might argue with the latter reality, particularly in a psychological sense (see Renton), however, and an issue of such importance to the majority of the population could quickly undermine a harmonious society.

Another comparative point is direct democracy, which makes frequent use of referendums. Switzerland (and some of its individual cantons in particular) is a prime example. Referendums can have a direct impact on law in Switzerland, including on contentious issues that in other countries would not be left to public debate. For instance, a 2009 referendum resulted in the banning of the construction of minarets, despite the country having a sizable Muslim population. Such political methods encourage division in a country which is far from homogenous given its ethnic and linguistic make-up.

A 2008 referendum in California led to the banning of same-sex marriages, a hugely divisive issue. Whilst the ban was overturned at the constitutional court it has had a lasting affect on community relations within the American state.

The Proposition 8 referendum was hugely divisive in California
The Proposition 8 referendum was hugely divisive in California

What helps whitewash over these incendiary issues (caused in part by referendums) is the economy. Switzerland and California both enjoy excellent standards of living in general and economic well-being can help silence even the most troublesome political issues.

The economic ramifications of Scottish independence have not been fully established and have been conveniently overlooked on the whole by Alex Salmond and the SNP. Whilst Scotland is unlikely to be another Northern Ireland, the divisiveness of the independence referendum could have worrying consequences should the ‘yes’ campaign succeed and the Scottish economy falls into freefall. What better way to create resentment in those who voted ‘no’?

As David Cameron has rightly publicised, a Scottish break will be permanent not a ‘trial separation’. If things don’t work out Scotland cannot simply rejoin the UK. This is a unique test, a situation unlike the other examples cited where populations were unanimous in their decisions or voting for single laws rather than a wholesale change in their existence.

A nation divided against itself? This is one referendum that will not be forgotten.