The 1887 Report into Queensland Prisons

The most remarkable document in Queensland prison history was produced in 1887, when a Board of Inquiry was initiated to investigate the management of prisons in the colony.

Barrister William Kinnaird Rose and immigration agent William Parry-Okeden travelled around Queensland inspecting facilities at six prisons, five police gaols and 43 lockups, and also interviewed staff and inmates at length. It is the often frank views put forward by the inmates that gives the subsequent report its real strength as a historical document. The report also featured detailed reports on the condition and administration of the prisons, the causes of crime, the relative increase of crime to population, statistics on the prison population, comparative dietary scales in other colonies and in Europe, and ground plans of the larger establishments. At 390 pages, it was the largest Parliamentary paper issued to date, and its contents led to the legislation of the Prisons Act 1890.

The following account of the prison report is adapted from the Brisbane Courier, 3 September 1887:

‘For the most part the gaols were found to be overcrowded, and additional accommodation is urgently required in some of the establishments. Prisoners are herded together in the most disgraceful manner, and evils of the most terrible description are rampant. Of the existing system of gaol management and discipline the report says:-
"Broadly speaking, the condition of all the gaols and penal establishments in the colony has become feeble and nerveless. This is perhaps the result of a rebound to undue leniency from the harsh and cruel treatment to which prisoners were subjected in Australia in the olden days. The defective organisation and administration which the evidence and the special reports on each of the gaols disclose, the deficient discipline rendered unavoidable by badly planned and constructed prisons, the lack of classification of prisoners, the facilities for contamination, the unnecessary luxuries provided for, and the general ease and comfort enjoyed by the inmates of almost all the penitentiary establishments render, we are convinced, negatory a considerable proportion of the large expenditure incurred in the pursuit, detection, trial, and conviction of criminals, and tend directly to encourage the growth of a criminal class.

There is very little, for instance, of a penal character in the life at St. Helena - not to speak of other gaols. The labour imposed is in no sense heavy; it is much less so than that done every day in the bush, on the railways, or in free workshops. In many respects it is not even monotonous, which should be an element in all penal or deterrent labour. The prisoners are better fed, we dare say, than many free labourers in the colony - certainly than the vast majority of skilled artisans in Europe. They have hours of relaxation, holidays, and half-holidays ; they enjoy the unrestrained society of each other at stated periods of the day, they have amusements in the shape of games, tuition if they desire it,  and music to soothe them. If sick they are tended, and for the time being they are without, care."
GALLERY
Queensland prisons in the 1887 report (click to enlarge images)

Plan of HM Prison Brisbane, Boggo Road, Woolloongabba, 1887 (from the 1887 Report in Qld Gaols)
The front gates of the original Male Division, Boggo Road, undated
The front of Rockhampton Prison, c.1912 (Comptroller-General's Reports)Plan of HM Prison Townsville, 1887 (from the 1887 Report in Qld Gaols)


The associated system, by which prisoners of all degrees of wickedness and depravity are mingled together, prevails. Classification is impossible, and sanitation in most of the establishments is imperfect. The evils attending the associated system, says the report,
"are too great to permit of its being safely continued. It leads to insubordination, to conspiracies, to discontent, to vices of the most revolting nature; it increases the cost of administration; it prevents the possibility of reformation on the part of the convicts; it contaminates prisoners not wholly bad; it, in short - as was tersely put by a shrewd observer - manufactures criminals."
The evidence of indecent practices in the gaols - especially in Townsville- is appalling, and ought to stir the country and Parliament to an immediate reform. Of Toowoomba female gaol the board says:-
"Great as the evils are apparent on the surface from the want of classification, we confess we were hardly prepared for the terrible revelations made as to what is possible in the associated wards or cells. Allowing very much for exaggeration and for the loose talk of debased and prurient minds, enough remains to shock and horrify. Apart from the vile practices and the awful language which are indulged in, there can be no doubt that improper influences are brought to bear on less hardened females to abandon themselves to a career of immorality and crime when they shall have attained their freedom. Our firm conviction is that no woman can enter Toowoomba Gaol without becoming degraded, losing self-respect, and made infinitely worse than before she stepped within its walls."
The associated system in the penal establishments and gaols is condemned by the board with energetic emphasis, and the separate system recommended to be adopted as soon as possible. This involves the provision of additional accommodation and the remodelling of all the gaols. On this point the report recommends: -
"1. A new penitentiary on the mainland to accommodate 300 prisoners in single cells, and to which all penal servitude prisoners should be sent for a period of not less than six months. 2. The rearrangement of the existing establishment at St. Helena for the reception of penal servitude prisoners who had earned pro- motion into the higher classes. 3. The division of Brisbane Gaol into three sections - one as a female prison, one as a prison for persons waiting trial or on remand, and one for short sentence prisoners of the Southern district. 4. That Rockhampton and Townsville gaols be enlarged to suit the requirements of the Central and Northern districts respectively for all prisoners sentenced to less than penal servitude. 5. The remodelling of Toowoomba Gaol. 6. The introduction of a sound system of classification, based on that described in Captain Townley's special report on the prisons of the Southern colonies, and which is to be found in appendix, part iv., with modifications adapted to local requirements."
The administration of some of the police gaols - especially those at Blackall and Cooktown, is wonderfully lax. The prisoners loaf about the yard, smoke in their cells, make obscene drawings on the walls, burn candles at night to the danger of fire, and read the news- papers or other literature. In some gaols the blankets are covered with vermin, the walls are vermin haunted, and the sanitary conditions altogether dreadful.

The cost of conveyance of prisoners is excessive, and it was time that some investigation should be made into this department of the police operations, for the board were unable, as correspondence proves, to get at any detailed information as to the expenditure of thousands of pounds. The transport of prisoners last year cost the country £5600 at least. The removal of one prisoner from one place to another from his apprehension to final incarceration after conviction has amounted to the extraordinary sum of £60. With a view of saving some of this extraordinary expense, the report, recommends the proclamation of additional police gaols at Cunnamulla, Maryborough, Cairns, Winton, and Normanton.

With few exceptions, the lockups are condemned as inadequate, dirty, offensive, and evidence is furnished of deaths having occurred from the confinement in the close, ill-ventilated, and stifling black holes. The lockups in the North and West appear to be the worst. The board also
"direct attention to the long periods to which, especially in the Western districts, persons are kept in lockups on remand. In some cases, to which our notice was drawn, men had been remanded on the slightest possible, and even no, evidence from week to week for over three months. This, in effect, means the infliction of imprisonment without trial in badly-constructed cells, on presumably innocent men."
The employment of prisoners on public works and in reproductive industries is recommended, and much information is afforded in regard to this species of saving expense of prisoners in other countries.

The turnkeys in the gaols are acquitted of systematically ill- treating prisoners, though the behaviour of some of the officials is not lightly spoken of. One case of blackmail by a gaol official on a prisoner's friend is proved but the board do not believe the practice is general. The evidence as to the conduct of turnkeys in Townsville is startling. This, however, is nothing to the revelations as to the employment by gaolers of prisoners as servants, and to the gross evils to which this leads in Brisbane, Toowoomba, and Townsville gaols. For instance it appears that a woman recently hung for murder was engaged as a private cook by the gaoler at Townsville, that prisoner servants were allowed outside the gaol walls without escort, that a female prisoner was employed as a music governess to the gaoler's children at Townsville, that prisoners who acted as servants, were outside the gaol all night and came back to prison the worse of drink; that prisoners were allowed to work for the private benefit of gaolers and turnkeys. The report recommends that prisoners should henceforth not be permitted to be employed as servants.

The evidence as to the perfunctory - even extraordinary - manner in which the visiting surgeons discharge their duties is astounding. In Brisbane Gaol it appears that a prisoner, who acted as a clerk and dispenser, ruled the doctor and doctored the prisoners freely himself. Deadly poisons were left carelessly about on an open shelf to which prisoners had access. The hospital, too, was used evidently not for sick patients, but as a free-and-easy boarding-house for favoured prisoners.

The rules for the regulation of all the gaols and penal establishments appear to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance; and the board recommend that a new set of rules suited to the conditions of the gaols be framed. The existing treatment of remanded and committed prisoners is also condemned by the report, and reforms are advocated.

Some astonishing evidence is given of the treatment of prisoners under escort - of their being leg-ironed on horseback, or in coach, or steamer, or their being chained to stirrup-irons or to tree stumps. The report admits that in the back country it may be sometimes necessary to iron or handcuff certain prisoners, but suggests that this should only be done under strict regulation, and with the consent of a police-magistrate or justice of the peace recorded in writing.

There is much curious and startling evidence of the flogging and gagging of prisoners in gaol, and regarding prison punishments generally, and the report recommends
"That the use of the gag should be abolished and that if the lash is to be retained as a reserve punishment for incorrigible and violent prisoners the flogging should not be administered until the sentence of the justices is confirmed by the Colonial Secretary - or, as in Jamaica, by the Governor in-Council, to whom a copy of the evidence should be sent ; or as alternative - which we prefer - that the prison offences for which a flogging is reserved as a punishment should be tried, not in the gaol before the visiting justices, but in the Supreme Court, as in New South Wales."
The question of prison diet is entered into very fully. A reform is suggested, including the abolition of the ration of tobacco given to hard labour prisoners, and until recently to women, on the grounds that:- "1. It provides a luxury at the expense of the State to criminals, which cannot be obtained by many poor but honest law-abiding free men. 2. It is dangerous. Smoking in and around the wooden buildings of many of our gaol establishments may lead to a disastrous fire any day. 3. It is the active cause of continual breaches of the gaol regulations. The vast majority of the punishments in the principal gaols are awarded for the illegitimate possession of pipes, tobacco, and matches. 4. It promotes petty trafficking in the gaols. 5. It is a temptation to turnkeys to break the law and smuggle tobacco into the gaols - an offence which can hardly be detected so long as any tobacco is allowed within the prison walls." Some additional check is, the board says, required on the contractors for prison stores, because there was evidence of frauds.

The question of the treatment of Asiatic and aboriginal offenders is discussed very fully in the report, and the evidence on this point is very interesting. The board found that an aboriginal had been provided in a lockup at Gladstone with an apparatus for opium smoking, and inquiry showed that opium smoking
"prevails to a terrible extent among them, and  that this habit is killing them off, as one witness said, more rapidly than 'dispersing'  ever did. The vice is also being acquired in certain districts by Polynesians. The effects of the opium upon the kanakas and some of the blacks appear to be quite different from those generally recognised. It excited them in a remarkable degree, and under its influence they are driven to violations of the law. It may be that this is due to the fact that the drug supplied to the blacks and kanakas is adulterated, or consists of the charcoal remainder of opium partially smoked by the Chinese. The opium is obtained from Chinese, marsupial scalp hunters, and persons engaged on cattle stations. And there was evidence by a witness, whose character is so high that his veracity cannot be questioned, that he saw the guard of a train on the Central Railway selling opium in his van to blacks who came down to the railway stations on the line for the purpose of purchasing it. In the opinion of the board legislation is necessary to stop the sale of opium, or any preparations thereof, to aboriginals and islanders imported into Queensland under the labour regulations."
The policy of remission of sentences on prisoners is approved, but it should be secured only by the prisoners working out their remission by industry and good conduct - as in England and Victoria - for, say the board, the
"title of a convict, however, to remission of sentence should not depend upon the will of any official in the prison, or even altogether on the judgment of the Minister of Justice. We do not mean to derogate from the prerogative of mercy exercised by the Executive, but simply refer to the conditions under which the Minister shall ordinarily concede a remission of sentence. Unless some precise rule is established and strictly followed, there is a danger of personal applications being made, and influence brought to bear on Ministers for the pardon or release of particular offenders. It is unseemly that there should be, as the superintendent at St. Helena says there is, a rush of petitions for release with every change of Government."
The consolidation and amendment of the law relating to the establishment and government of gaols is recommended, and specific amendments desirable are mentioned. Those include the creation of a Prisons Department under the Colonial Secretary or Minister of Justice, and the appointment of an Inspector-General of gaols, penal establishments, and lockups –
"the sheriff being relieved of all duties as to prisons, except in regard to prisoners under sentence of death. Constant, close, and active supervision is the best means by which the abuses and evils which the evidence taken in the different gaols disclose can be prevented; it is the only method for securing that uniformity in discipline and treatment by which prison life may be made reformatory and deterrent. At present imprisonment does not mean the same thing in St. Helena, in Brisbane, in Townsville, in Rockhampton, in Roma, or Blackall; and this fact is said to be taken into account by the criminal class. Not infrequently prisoners ask Judges, when being sentenced, to send them to St. Helena; and prisoners in Brisbane Gaol made it a matter of complaint that they had not been forwarded to St. Helena, where they confessed the weight of punishment was lighter than in Brisbane."
The duties of the Inspector General should be to inspect, by himself or deputy, all the principal prisons and penal establishments at uncertain intervals and not less frequency than once a month, the police gaols once in six months, and the lockups once a year. That during his visits he should hear all appeals or requests by prisoners, investigate all irregularities, enforce all regulations ; that through him all requisitions for supplies for the gaols should be made, and that he should have the responsible direction of the employment of all prisoners in industrial labour or on public works. The final recommendation in the general report is the collection and collation of uniform prison statistics by the Department of Prisons as the best and most instructive basis for penal legislation in the future.

The special report on all the prison establishments describes in detail the site and buildings, the accommodation, sanitation, health, and administration. That for St. Helena enters fully into the grievances of the convicts made the subject of representations some months ago to the Colonial Secretary, and which led to insubordination, if not quite a mutiny. This inquiry is exhaustive, and the result is that some of the complaints were of the most frivolous nature, and clearly showed that many prisoners have come to regard St. Helena, not so much as a place of punishment, but as a retreat where quiet comfort, if not luxury, should be enjoyed, and that they have somehow a claim to be pampered and petted. Among such complaints were the lack of seasoning and the scarcity of vegetables in the soup; the absence of spirits among the medical comforts, the neglect to furnish "something to warm the inside" of those who happened to be out in the rain; the hardship of not having a daily change of flannels, or a supply of socks, drawers, and handkerchiefs; the demand for rigid observance of the eight hours' system, or a payment either in money or additional rations for so-called overtime. It was also made a hardship that the prisoners did not get a sufficient number of holidays, and a claim was made for Easter Monday and Whit Monday, in addition to Christmas and Good Friday. Some of the complaints were, however, reasonable and worthy of attention.'

The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society has a copy of the 1887 Report in its collection.

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