1934: A Day in the Life of a Prisoner at Boggo Road

The following is adapted from an article the Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 4 February 1934: 

'Notwithstanding the trying economic period through which we have passed in the last few years - a period which made petty thieves and amateur burglars of many men who had formerly led irreproachable lives - there is reason to believe that conditions are improving so far as the more violent crimes against the person and against property are concerned.

It is not an easy subject on which to be dogmatic; experts are not unanimous. Figures often can be misleading; but there does appear to be a marked falling off in really violent crimes. In the following special article, compiled and written exclusively for The Sunday Mail, many interesting figures are given relating to crime in Queensland. What will probably be of more interest to the average reader, however, is the intimate glimpse provided of conditions of life in the principal State prison at Boggo Road, South Brisbane. The reader is taken through a day in the life of the prisoners, told the kind of tasks they perform, the recreations they enjoy, and the food they receive. It is an unusual story of a section of the community about which the average citizen knows little or nothing.

Main gates of No.2 Division, Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, c.1936.


In every age, in every clime, there is a criminal section against which society must be protected. History indicates how this section has increased or decreased at different periods, and of the methods of coping with the wrong-doers. In times gone by the brutality of the violent criminal was often equalled or excelled by the gaolers. But times changed, and with them the ways of handling prisoners. Many humane reforms have been made, many are in process of introduction, and others are as yet hazy dreams for the future. In Queensland St. Helena, once a penal settlement, is now a playground for the people. The principal State prison is at Boggo Road, in South Brisbane, and there are others at Stewart's Creek (outside Townsville), at Rockhampton, Mackay, Thursday Island, and Normanton.

The Brisbane prison, which has divisions for males and for females, can accommodate more than 300 prisoners, the Stewart's Creek gaol about half this number, and the others are much smaller. It is of interest to compare the figures for prisoners detained last year for the more serious crimes with the previous and earlier years. By the expression "the more serious crimes" is meant such crimes against the person as murder and attempted murder, manslaughter, assault, unlawfully wounding, and the like, and offences against property such as burglary and house-breaking, arson, and horse and cattle stealing… 

No Broad Arrows
Although it would be absurd to regard a prison as a holiday resort, and although the need for strict discipline is obvious, much has been done in recent years by way of increasing the self-respect and self-reliance of the men and women who have to pay, with the forfeiture of their liberty, for their sins against society. Many changes have occurred since the Brisbane gaol was established in June, 1883. Gone are broad arrows, with which prison clothes were branded in former years. This reform was introduced in the time of M.W. McCormick as Home Secretary. In 1921 classification and separation of different kinds of prisoners occurred, and this was the forerunner of many other valuable reforms. It was in 1926 that Mr. W.J. Gall became Comptroller-General of Prisons for Queensland, and about the same time Captain J.F. Whitney, a man of wide experience, was brought from the South as deputy-superintendent, and last year succeeded the late Major A.T. Peirson as superintendent of the Brisbane gaol. 

Do Not Break Stones
Although it is still permissible to make the prisoners break stones with hammers all day this is no longer the custom. Just as the broad arrows have gone, so apparently has the stone breaking. Instead the men are taught the more useful trades and crafts which may prove of some value to them when they gain their liberty once more. It will be shown in another part of this article that vast quantities of manufactured goods, worth thousands of pounds, are made yearly for the Government stores by the prisoners at Boggo Road. These improved facilities for the instruction of the men in useful tasks, combined with the system of separating the men who have been committed for minor offences from the hardened 'old-timer,' are considered to be valuable reforming agents. Another feature was the improvement of the prison libraries by the addition of interesting books, and the use of lights in the cells until a reasonable hour was a much welcomed concession, because it enabled the prisoners to read or to study for an hour or so after the routine of the day. 

A Cherished Ambition
Mr. Gall's system of prison management is based on the principle of reformation, and not on vindictive desire to punish. In giving effect to this policy he keeps in mind the fact that the discipline of the Prison aims at the satisfaction of justice and the moral reformation of the prisoner. One of Mr. Gall's cherished ambitions - the segregation on a well-equipped prison farm of young male first offenders to the age of 25 years - has not yet been realised, but it will doubtless come in good time. "If there is to be any hope of bringing these offenders back to society as good and reputable citizens it is absolutely essential that they be separated from and have no association whatever with prisoners of two or more convictions, or with what we know as habitual criminals." said Mr. Gall. And with this contention most students of the subject will agree. Mr. Gall's plan is to secure a piece of fertile land, about 1000 acres in extent, well-watered, near the metropolitan area, and where proper supervision could be maintained. Selected first offenders, in charge of a carpenter, should be sent to this land first, Mr. Gall suggests, to build huts and cooking galley. Then the land could be prepared for intensive cultivation of vegetables and fodder. The plan is on the lines of the Westbrook Farm Home for boys, except that it would embrace young men up to 25 years. 

How Classified prisoners are classified in Queensland into nine groups.
These are:- First class: Prisoners undergoing sentences of imprisonment with hard labour or penal servitude for the first time. Second class: Prisoners undergoing sentences of imprisonment with hard labour or penal servitude who have been previously convicted. Third class: Prisoners undergoing imprisonment only for the first time. Fourth class: Prisoners undergoing imprisonment only who have been previously convicted. Fifth class: Prisoners for trial or under examination, not previously convicted. Sixth Class: Prisoners for trial or under examination, previously convicted. Seventh class: Persons imprisoned for non-payment of money or for contempt of court, or in default of finding sureties to keep the peace, or to be of good behaviour, or for non-payment of any sum of money imposed as a penalty or forfeiture under any law in force. Eighth class: Lunatics. Ninth class: Appellants.

Pacific Islanders and aboriginal prisoners are not required to undergo separate treatment, but so far as is practicable these are kept apart from the others. 

Division of Sexes
The classification set out above applies to female prisoners as well as males. There is a complete division, however, between the sexes, the females occupying yards, work rooms, wards, cells, hospital and other buildings apart altogether from those occupied by the males. The female prison is on the same reserve, but in a different enclosure. Neither the superintendent nor any other male officer has keys to the prison for females, and no male officer or person is permitted to enter into or remain in any of the yards, work rooms, wards, cells, hospital, or other portions of the female prison except in the company of a female officer. 

Daily Food Allowance
The daily allowance of food varies a little according to the length of the sentence being served, the class of prisoner, and whether or not such prisoner is doing hard labour. The food issued to those undergoing solitary confinement consists of 24oz of bread for the day, and water. There is nothing else. Those undergoing punishment for misbehaviour are placed on half rations. The children of female prisoners are allowed: Bread 6oz., meat 4oz., milk one pint, sugar one oz., soap ½oz.

Those who are serving sentences not exceeding six months receive the following daily allowance of food:- Bread, 12oz. (females 8oz.), maize meal 8oz., meat 4oz., vegetables 8oz., rice or barley 1oz., salt ½oz., soap ½oz. After six months on this ration those serving sentences up to 12 months, and also all debtors, prisoners under civil process, awaiting trial, under remand, and detained as witnesses for want of bail have an increased allowance of bread, meat, and vegetables, the quantities being:-

Bread, 12oz. (females 10oz.); meat, 8oz.; vegetables, 12oz. (females 8oz.); otherwise the items are the same. For those serving a longer sentence than 12 months, when not at hard labour, and for prisoners at hard labour serving sentences under 12 months, the following is the food allowance daily: Bread, 16oz. (females 12oz.); maize meal, 8oz.; meat with bone. 12oz.; meat without bone, 10oz.; vegetables, 12oz.; rice or barley, 1oz.; salt, ½oz., soap ½oz. Increased Allowances For those serving hard labour sentences of 12 months and upwards, the daily food allowance is:- Bread, 20ozs. (females 16oz.); maize meal, 6oz.; meat with bone, 16oz. (females 12oz.); meat, without bone, 13oz.; vegetables, 12oz.; rice, or barley, 1oz.; sugar, 1oz.; salt, ½oz.; soap, ½oz. Reduced rations are issued to prisoners on the sick list, but these include such items as arrowroot, tea, and milk. Where meat is allowed the quantity put out means the weight of the meat in an uncooked state with bone. 

A Day in Gaol
What is a normal day in the life of a man in prison? Here is a subject about which few persons can speak with authority. Among those who know the procedure there is difference of opinion. Some claim that the routine is too rigid, and others that it is not severe enough. Let the reader judge for himself.

The day begins at 6 a.m. with the first bell. The men rise, fold their bedding, dress, sweep, and tidy their cells.

At 6.30, when the second bell goes the warders parade and take up their posts. At 7.10 the roll is called, and the men take their breakfasts to their cells. At 8.10 the fourth bell is a summons to labour, and work proceeds until 11.50. The fifth ball then is the signal to cease labour, and to march to the yards in charge of officers. At noon the men march to the cells with their dinner. At 1.10 p.m. they begin labour again, and continue until 4 p.m. They are then checked, marched to the yard, clean boots and wash, and at 4.10 marched to their cells with the evening meal. At 5 p.m. searches are made, the cells are locked up, and the warders parade. Lights are allowed in the cells for a while, and about 8 p.m. all lights are extinguished for the night. 

Games and Services
On Saturdays and Sundays the programme varies. In the afternoon on Saturday's for instance, the men play chess, draughts, quoits, and other approved games until 4.30. On Sunday and holidays there are approved games in the morning, or choir practice and Divine service at times, as arranged with the chaplains. The afternoon is spent in the same way as on Saturday. On Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and the anniversary of the King's Birthday, prisoners may receive from their friends allowances of cakes, cheese, fruit, butter, and biscuits, and those who have no friends are permitted to purchase some of these extras from the prison stores if they have the money. Religious or charitable organisations may forward parcels containing such items. 

Special Feasts
On these days, however, apart from any such gifts from outside, there is a big difference in the daily allowance of food, which comprises: — 12oz. of chops or steak (for breakfast), 1lb. of roast beef, or mutton if beef is not procurable, 2lb. of bread, 1lb. plum pudding, 12oz. English potatoes, or sweet potatoes, if English potatoes are not procurable, ½oz. salt, ¼oz. tea, 2oz. sugar. No hominy is issued on these special days. Prisoners who are serving a sentence of six months or upwards may, after three months, if their conduct and industry have been good, receive an indulgence of 2oz. of tobacco a week. No such allowance is given to those under 21 years of age, but, a corresponding value in jam is allowed. Stern rules for the cleanliness of prisoners and the cells are observed. The walls are lime washed and the floors are washed frequently. Beds and bedding are aired not less frequently than once a week. The introduction of spirits, fermented liquors, tobacco, opium, letters or other documents, money, firearms, sharp instruments, or any other article which could be used to the danger of officers or prisoners, or for facilitating the escape of prisoners is strictly prohibited. Stern punishment awaits those who rebel or attempt to escape or attack officers, including solitary confinement, and in some cases, the lash. 

Output Worth Thousands
Contrary to general opinion the men are taught useful trades, and the yearly output is worth thousands of pounds. When it is remembered that the vast majority of these men are unskilled, that they are unaccustomed to work of any kind, and that most are made to work against their will, it will be realised that this is no small achievement. The latest available figures show the value of work performed by prisoners in the Brisbane prison for the year as follows:- Tailors... £8703 Bootmakers... £4595 Tinsmiths... £542 Carpenters... £1136 Bookbinders... £178 Matmakers... £447 Hatmakers... £23 Brushmakers... £296 Dentist... £139. The trades of tailoring, bootmaking, and tinsmithing have been conducted since 1921, and in May, 1930, a competent warder carpenter was engaged. These articles go to the Government stores for use in various Government institutions. In Stewart's Creek prison, outside Townsville, articles worth £1784 were manufactured in the year, and much valuable repair work was done to the prison. In Rockhampton and the smaller prisons much useful work is done, necessarily on a less ambitious scale. 

Paid in Pennies
In every department of labour there is a standard scale of output, which varies according to the length of sentence, or, in other words, the experience gained by the man on the job. He is expected then to produce these minimum quantities of goods. For this work gratuities are payable as follows: First six months, 1d a day. Six months to two years, 2d a day. After two years, 3d a day. Assuredly payment is not high, but it must be remembered that the prisoners are paying for offences against society, and small as the amount is it mounts to a fair sum of pocket money for those who leave the prison gates after a long term. The great feature is that the men are taught useful occupations which might serve them in good stead when they go back to take their place in the community.'

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