H.M. Brisbane Prison in 1885

Oct 30, 2015 0 comments
Dr William Hobbs, prison medical officer, Brisbane
Dr William Hobbs. (State Library of Queensland)
The following article is reproduced from the Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1885:

'THIS institution, whose general arrangements have previously been described in this journal, is now about to be handed over to the care of the new governor, Captain Jekyll, who, has arrived in Brisbane. Since the suspension of Captain Bernard, the gaol has been in the experienced charge of Mr. Robert Starkey, who has been in the Government service for a great number of years, and during his brief term of authority there have been five floggings and one execution. The administration of the gaol by Mr. Starkey has excited the hearty approval of the Sheriff, and Captain Jekyll will find the institution in admirable order. At the same time, however, there are several improvements which, as Mr. Starkey pointed out to our reporter, are very necessary; and now that the gaol is passing into new hands it is to be hoped that the governor will see his way to carrying them out.

A visit to the institution, while it shows the cleanliness and order everywhere visible, nevertheless reveals some serious defects that require to be immediately dealt with. The first impression one feels on entering the institution is the grim reality of the whole thing; the bolts, and locks, and bars on every side; the strong walls, and the quietness that everywhere prevails - all serve to impress on the mind that one is in prison - an institution for the punishment and confinement of fellow-man.

After passing through the main entrance the first room on the left, immediately above what is known as the gaol office, is the hospital, where those prisoners who are under the doctor's care are placed. Here there are six or eight rough pallet-beds ranged against the wall, and at present there are three occupants, two of whom are suffering from diseases of the eye. The hospital is visited every day by Dr. Hobbs, who generally arrives at the gaol about noon. Of the three cases there at the time of our reporter's visit one was from Toowoomba - an old man sentenced to eight months' imprisonment; one who had an ulcer in his eye was from St. Helena, and the third, suffering from ophthalmia, was undergoing a sentence of ten years' imprisonment for horse-stealing.

Attached to the hospital is a yard divided off from the other portions of the gaol, and here sweet potatoes are cultivated. Those prisoners who are afflicted in their mind and suspected to be lunatics, are also kept in the hospital, where they are under constant supervision until their lunacy is confirmed, when after due precaution to ascertain whether they are shamming, they are sent to Woogaroo. In a solitary cell they might attempt suicide, but in the hospital a light is burning all night, and they are watched and attended by one of the other prisoners who has been selected to attend upon the sick. This prisoner is called a "billeted" prisoner, and such offices as these, which are only given to the most steady and trustworthy of the prisoners, are eagerly sought for, as they carry with them certain privileges and increased liberty.

Beneath the hospital room is the office where photographs and records of the prisoners are kept. Every prisoner sentenced in the Supreme or District Courts is at once photographed. Two copies are kept in the prison, and the other eight are sent to the Commissioner of Police. Among these eight is one attached to which is all the prison and previous history of the prisoner as far as is known to the gaol authorities. The two copies kept at the gaol are filed, one going into what is called the index book, and the other into the description book. In the index book the photos are arranged alphabetically so that a prisoner's photograph may be at once identified. In the description book a short history is written above the photo of each prisoner. Among the particulars given are the date and place of birth, date of arrival in the colony and name of the ship the prisoner came out in, former trade, religion, amount of education, colour of hair and eyes, height, weight, and dates of conviction, discharge, and death.

These volumes form a strange and weirdly interesting history of crime for many years, and as the pages are turned slowly, now and then one comes across the names and features of once celebrated, though now forgotten, criminals. A similarity is noticed in the faces of particular sets of criminals, so that a man convicted of forgery or larceny may almost certainly be distinguished from those convicted of robbery with violence or murder. In the earlier re- cords horse-stealing seems particularly common. The first portrait in the description book is that of "Professor" Russell, a rather remarkable looking man, formerly well-known in Brisbane. He first entered the prison as a debtor, and was subsequently sentenced, on the 25th March, 1872, to four years' penal servitude for receiving stolen property. He committed suicide in New South Wales about eighteen months ago. 

Among the photos may be recognised the faces of several persons now in Brisbane earning an honest and respectable livelihood. Next to the hospital is the "debtors' ward," where debtors who have been committed to prison are kept. Debtors are not associated with the other prisoners, and are permitted liberties and indulgences unknown to the others. They are allowed to receive what are known as "luxuries" from their friends, subject always to the supervision of the prison authorities; are allowed books, if anyone is kind enough to supply them, and may smoke as much as they like. At the time of our visit, there was one unfortunate debtor, a young man who looked, however, contented enough with his surroundings. The debtors' ward, nevertheless, is cheerless enough. There is no furniture, with the exception of a pallet bed, but the prisoner referred to was allowed to have his own port-manteau. On inquiry, our reporter learned that there was no library in the prison, as is the case in other colonies and at home, and a prisoner in hospital confined for debt is denied the consolation of reading unless thoughtful friends or sympathisers supply him with books. This particular debtor, however, seemed well enough cared for, for he had a pipe in his mouth and a novel in his hand, and seemed to be equally enjoying each.

Next to the hospital yard, and divided from it by a strong palisade, is the yard set apart for boys under age, and yet too old for the Reformatory, who have been sentenced to imprisonment, and the sight of these youngsters, some of whom had been sentenced several times and bore the stamp of confirmed vice on their countenance, was perhaps the saddest to be witnessed in the whole prison. They are employed in picking hair, which is almost the only kind of hard labour in the prison. At the back of the yard, under cover, small piles with concave tops to receive the shot have been driven into the ground level with the surface of the earth. These are intended for shot-drill, but though the shot (24lb. in weight) have been frequently applied for, for some reason or other they have not as yet been supplied by the Government, and the gaol authorities are hard put to it to find exercise for the prisoners, as there are no treadmills in the prison.

Loading out of the main corridor is the yard where the lunatics and prisoners from the hospital are kept. Like all the other yards, it is very clean, and, like the others, it is well under the eye of the sentinel on one or the other of the two watch towers. These sentinels, who are on duty all day, are armed with a Snider rifle and two rounds of ammunition and a loaded revolver. At the bottom of a staircase underneath the corridor are two punishment cells, where insubordinate prisoners are confined in darkness and solitude. They are closed in with two doors, both floor, sides, and ceiling being of concrete, and the Cimmerian darkness inside is such as can be almost felt. No ray of light penetrates them from sunset to sunrise, nor is any sound in the prison audible to their unhappy occupants.

At 5 p.m. all the prisoners are mustered in the corridor, each man in front of his cell. The cells have all been previously carefully searched. Each man is searched by a warder, and answers to his name, after which he is placed in his cell, and the door closed. A warder follows and locks the padlock, and this warder is again followed by the principal warder, who tries each successive lock. The cells, which are all about 9ft. by 8 ft., and 11ft, high, are furnished simply with a bedstead, consisting of two planks, on which the prisoner sleeps. No pillow is allowed, and his only bedding consists of two double blankets, one of which is used as a mattress, the other as a covering. The cells are lighted by a small iron grating over the bed, and another over the door.

The condemned cells are similar in every respect to the others, with the exception that they are provided with doors of iron gratings in addition to the ordinary door. When a man is sentenced to death, the iron door is shut and the other door kept open so that the prisoner is always kept in sight. A warder stays outside the iron door night and day, and at night time a light is kept burning outside the cell. At the back of and between the two condemned cells is the pinioning room, a bare apartment devoid of all furniture.

On the left of the corridor is a large yard devoted to the use of those prisoners who have been committed for trial, remanded, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. Here the injustice is obvious, for a man who may possibly be innocent and acquitted on his trial is condemned to the society of convicted criminals serving out a life sentence, and some of whom have narrowly escaped the gallows. The yard ought to be divided into three compartments, one for each class of prisoner, and the suggestion has frequently been made by Mr. Starkey, who has gone to the trouble of drawing up the necessary plans. It is absolutely necessary at present to place those serving a life sentence with those still unconvicted, for the only other yard available is occupied by the prisoners who are serving ordinary terms of imprisonment and who average in number about fifty, and it is considered unsafe with the present limited staff of warders (9) to place too many prisoners together.

In each yard is a shower-bath supplied with Enoggera water, and each prisoner is compelled to have a thorough bath once a week in addition to his ordinary washing every morning. Each prisoner has his bit of soap and a towel, and is provided with a tin basin, but the want of plunge baths is severely felt. A bathhouse, too, is needed for the warders, who at present are compelled to wash themselves under the same shower bath as the prisoners in the prison yard.

In each yard under cover is a table with benches where the prisoners take their meals. They are provided with a tin plate and pannikin, but no knives or forks. The meat is cut up very small, and they have to use their fingers, and are allowed unlimited water to drink.

In the sentence yard the prisoners are sometimes employed in cutting wood, and this, with the occupation of picking hair, is the only kind of labour that is done in the gaol. It seems strange that so much available labour cannot be profitably employed, and the prisoners made to a certain extent self-supporting.

Next to the sentence yard is what is known as the kitchen yard, and Mr. Starkey makes the very sensible suggestion that those prisoners who are not sentenced to hard labour should have a portion of this yard set apart for their use. At least there should be some distinction made between those sentenced to hard labour and those sentenced to imprisonment only. These latter are allowed to maintain themselves, and to receive food and luxuries from their friends, of course under the supervision of the authorities. The kitchen is commodious and clean, and is fitted with four boilers, capable of supplying 400 prisoners with food. At present all the food is boiled, and it seems rather hard on men who are serving life sentences to have no variety in their food, but to be compelled to go on munching boiled meat until they die. A range, however, is now ready, on the application of Mr. Starkey, who has suggested to the sheriff that the meat might be baked once a week instead of boiled, and this small change would be an era in the life of some of the poor fellows who already have served several years on nothing but boiled meat, and have nothing to look forward to but boiled meat until they die.

All the food and clothing that comes to the prison is contracted for, except that the moleskin trousers are made at St. Helena, flannel shirts at Toowoomba, while the sugar - which is of fine quality - is also obtained from St. Helena. The general routine of prison life is as follows: - The prisoners are awakened every morning by the prison bell at 6.15. At 6.30 the cells are unlocked, and they are mustered in their several yards and perform their ablutions. At 7 o'clock each man is served with his breakfast at the yard gate. At 8 the bell rings again, and all the prisoners go to whatever work can be found for them. At 12 o'clock dinner is served, and at 1 the bell rings again for work. At ten minutes to 4 the prisoners wash again, and at 4 the bell rings for supper. They knock off work at a quarter to 5, and at 5 are mustered and the roll is called out by one of the warders. Each prisoner answers to his name, and each name is checked by the principal turnkey.

At present the gaol is terribly overcrowded, and additional buildings are urgently required. In the corridor are sixty cells, while the average number of prisoners is about 100, and for some time past from twenty to thirty have been sleeping on the floor of the corridor. This is almost unsafe, considering the very limited staff of warders and remembering that watch must be kept night and day. In eight of the cells three prisoners are confined for want of room, and, considering the smallness of the cells, they must resemble miniature black holes of Calcutta in the summer weather with three men in each.

Captain Bernard left the gaol on the 22nd August, since when Mr. Starkey has had the sole charge, in addition to which he has also performed the work which usually falls on the chief warder. He has also been obliged to attend the Supreme and District Courts, and this at a time when the gaol has been unusually full. Since 1st January no less than 872 fresh prisoners have passed through the gaol, exclusive of seventy who were already incarcerated. During Mr. Starkey's tenure of office there has been no insubordination among the prisoners, and no complaint from inside or out. The management, it is admitted by the Sheriff, has been all that can be desired in the face of great difficulties; and Mr. Starkey, who is an old servant of the Government, deserves substantial recognition at their hands.'

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