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.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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