1301.6 - Tasmanian Year Book, 2000  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 22/04/2004   
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Feature Article - 100 years of the prison service


Convicts transported from England’s overflowing prison system made a major contribution to Tasmania’s settlement and development. Although some convicts returned to the UK at the completion of their sentence, a substantial number settled down to become the farmers and business and professional people who helped build Tasmania into a thriving community.

When transportation ceased in 1853, the State was left with persons who still had lengthy sentences to complete. There was also a system of prison buildings and probation stations strategically located around the State to serve the needs of convicts who were allocated to work on farms or public works such as road and bridge building.

As the remaining number of imperial convicts reduced, country prisons and probation stations, including Port Arthur, fell into disuse. The existing facilities left over from colonial times in Hobart and Launceston became the basis of the Tasmanian Prison System for those persons who committed offences within the State.


The first State law in Tasmania to control the operation of prisons was the Prison Act 1868. Its provisions very much reflected community standards of the day with a strong influence from the convict system. A significant change occurred with amendments in 1908, which introduced a system of parole. Under this enactment, the Controller of Prisons could recommend to the State Governor, acting alone (that is, not with the advice of the Executive Council) to grant a prisoner a licence to be at large.

The Indeterminate Sentences Act 1921 gave courts the power to declare persons who committed a similar offence three times to be declared an habitual criminal to be detained in prison at the (State) Governor’s pleasure. A board of five members determined when an habitual criminal might be released on licence.

The three Acts became increasingly out of step with modern penological practices but remained in force with only minor amendment until the Parole Act 1975 established a Parole Board and repealed the Indeterminate Sentences Act 1921 and the Prison Act 1908. The Prison Act 1977 finally repealed the Prison Act 1868. Thus, until 1977 ‘a gaoler’ could sentence a prisoner who breached prison regulations or used ‘profane language’ to up to three days in solitary confinement on bread and water and, if a male, to be placed in chains. Three solitary confinement cells located in Risdon Prison were in use until the mid 1970s, when the Attorney-General ordered that solitary confinement be discontinued.

The Corrections Act 1997, which repealed the Prison Act, Parole Act and Probation of Offenders Act, is now the enabling legislation. Together with the Sentencing Act 1997 it sets the course for treatment of offenders into the new millennium.


At the turn of the century, the prison system was under the administration of the Sheriff’s Department, responsible to Parliament through the Attorney-General. The governor of the Hobart gaol reported to the Sheriff in relation to the care of all prisoners in the State.

In 1936 an administration was established under a Controller of Prisons heading a new H.M. Gaol Department. The name was changed to the Gaols Department in 1944 and to the Prison Department in 1959.

On the retirement of the last Controller of Prisons in 1983, prison administration lost departmental status and was re-named the Corrective Services Division, a branch of the Law Department. The head of the division became the Director of Corrective Services.  In 1989 the administrative responsibility for  corrections was transferred to a new Department of Community Services and for the first time ministerial responsibility moved away from the Attorney-General to the Minister for Community Services. The arrangement was short lived, however, as responsibility returned to the Department of Justice (successor of the Law Department) in 1992.


By 1900, two prisons remained in use, one in Campbell Street, Hobart and one in Launceston. The Hobart Gaol was under the control of a governor who reported to the sheriff. The Launceston Prison, which by then held only a small number of short-term prisoners, was under the control of a superintendent who reported to the governor in Hobart. Female prisoners were kept in each location in an annex attached to the male prison.

The main purpose of the Launceston Prison was as a repository for persons required to appear in courts in Launceston and those in transit to courts on the North West Coast.

The notion of prisons being centralised in the south of the State was well established at the beginning of the century and continued to dominate prison operations.

At the beginning of the century, both prisons were already old and in poor condition. The living conditions and security were very poor with regular escapes. Between 1900 and 1943 there were no less than four Royal Commissions and a Board of Enquiry and a number of other parliamentary committees of enquiry into the state of the prisons. There had already been three Royal Commissions before the turn of the century. Many recommendations for upgrading and replacement of the gaol at Campbell Street were only partly addressed. Token changes were made to living conditions until the gaol was finally replaced in 1960.


In 1914 part of the Launceston prison site was given to the Education Department for a new State high school. The incompatibility of the new high school and the prison immediately adjacent resulted in the prison site being completely abandoned and the prison function transferred to the police watch house in 1917. The condition of the watch house was no better than the prison but continued in use until 1976 when new police buildings were constructed.

The management of the Launceston Prison was handed over to the Police Department after WWI although the prisoners remained the responsibility of the prison system. A police officer in Launceston and each of the major towns was appointed as gaoler under the prison legislation to provide administrative control of prisoners outside Hobart. This system persisted until 1991 when full control and staffing of the prison function in Launceston was returned to Corrective Services.


In 1916, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works inquired into the need for major remodelling of the Hobart Gaol. The committee recommended against the expenditure considering it more appropriate to build a new gaol. A lesser sum was provided to make temporary alterations to address the worst deficiencies. Cell accommodation was concentrated in the northern wing leaving the southern section, which dated from 1813, to be used for administration purposes. At the Royal Commission of 1943, it was reported that this part of the building was still in use as cells including four solitary confinement dark cells.

The work carried out in 1916 included improvements to the drainage by connection of the gaol (but not the cells) to the sewerage system and the conversion of lighting from gas to electricity. Other services for kitchen and workshops continued to be provided by a wood fired boiler and wood fired ovens.

Some cells were considered to have insufficient light and were so small as to only permit room for a bed.  The governor of the day reported that he was much heartened by the alterations in which groups of two small cells were converted into new single cells.  This made it more humane and convenient  to keep prisoners locked in the cells over weekends and holidays.

The ‘temporary’ alterations appear to have allayed concerns about the need for a new prison.

A Royal Commission into shortcomings in the prison system took place in 1935. This report was never printed and all trace has been lost. It was followed in the same year by an enquiry by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. At that stage the gaol had accommodation for 142 inmates.

One of the recommendations of the committee was for the replacement of the gaol with a modern facility to replace the deplorable conditions in Campbell Street. It was considered that the gaol should be removed to the country ‘but not more distant than 30 miles’ and should be suitable for farming by the less dangerous prisoners. By this means it was considered that the prison system could be self sufficient in meat, vegetables, dairy produce and fuel.

A property was eventually selected in 1937 at Hayes to become the prison farm (see below). The idea of transferring all of the prison operations to Hayes was subsequently abandoned.

After another Royal Commission in 1943 resulting from a series of escapes from Campbell Street, a property was finally obtained by compulsory acquisition in 1949. The area of 90 acres acquired was on the eastern side of the Derwent, not far from Risdon Cove where the initial European settlement of Tasmania occurred.


It took until 1956 for positive moves to be made to commence the design of a new prison. Very little prison replacement had occurred in other States at that time.
The new prison was considered to be ‘state of the art’ and the most advanced concept in prison architecture in Australia. All prisoners were accommodated in single occupancy cells containing a toilet and hand basin with running water. Heating was also provided in the cells together with access to local radio stations on headphones.

During the course of construction of the male prison, an upsurge in the prison population caused concern that the as yet incomplete prison would be too small. The plans were quickly modified. What had been intended to be three accommodation blocks were divided into six by adding a total of 72 additional cells in the exercise yards.  Unfortunately, none of the other prison facilities, such as workshops and recreation space, were increased to allow for the enlarged capacity.

The prison was completed for occupation by male prisoners in November 1960 and Campbell Street closed. The female prison remained at Campbell Street until 1963, when a completely separate prison was built on the Risdon site for women.

In 1967, a fire started by prisoners in the prison paint shop almost totally destroyed the workshop complex. The building had used much timber construction and no fire protection system has been installed.  Rebuilding occupied three years with most of the work performed by inmates under staff supervision. The cost of rebuilding was $300,000.

Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison, Risdon

Increasing prisoner numbers through the 1960s gave rise to investigations into a new prison site in the north of the State. Public opposition resulted in the deferral of a northern prison in favour of adding 36 cells in a low security unit at Risdon. The unit, later to be named the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison, was occupied in 1974 but declining prison numbers resulted in its closure in 1981. It was re-opened in 1991, but closed in 1997 on economic grounds.

Prison Hospital, Risdon

A 28-bed hospital was added to the eastern end of Risdon Prison in 1978. It is proclaimed as a special institution under the Mental Health Act to enable it to be used to house persons suffering mental illness who become subject to the criminal justice system. These  persons were previously detained in the State mental hospitals with persons who had no criminal involvement. The hospital, staffed with nurses employed by Corrective Services, also provides medical treatment for prisoners requiring in-patient care as well as the out-patient services for Risdon Prison inmates.


The property acquired in 1937 consisted of an orchard, cleared grazing land and a quantity of timbered country. Prisoners built their own living accommodation consisting of single wooden huts for 30 persons. Over the years, sheep, cattle and poultry were produced; a piggery and a dairy were developed; and cereal cropping and vegetable production were undertaken. The market garden, piggery and poultry production have since ceased in favour of more remunerative pursuits such as vegetable processing and root-stock production.

After a number of transformations, the cell and administration buildings were replaced in 1964 in concrete block construction, still in use today. Accommodation is now available for 70 minimum security inmates.


The newest addition to the prison buildings is the Hobart Remand Centre, occupied for the first time in January 1999. The Remand Centre contains 40 single-occupancy cells for persons awaiting trial, plus 10 cells for police watch house cases. It is built on five floors.  All cells are centrally heated and fitted with a shower as well as toilet and hand basin.  Outdoor recreation space is provided in a secure area on the roof. The Remand Centre connects on one side directly to the Hobart Police Station and on the other side to the Courts of Petty Sessions, which greatly reduces prisoner movement.


The daily average prison population in 1899-1900 was 108. This represents an imprisonment rate of 62.53 prisoners per 100,000 of the State population. Over the years of the Great War, the prison population declined. By 1918-19 the daily average had dropped to a level never repeated: a mere
45 prisoners, an imprisonment rate of 21.5 per 100,000.

Not surprisingly, a similar effect occurred between 1940 and 1945 during WWII, with the prison population dropping from 117 to 82.

From 1945 the number in prison rose steadily, peaking in 1970-71 with a daily average of 385.85. During that year the highest ever muster since transportation ended was recorded, 414, with only one empty cell left in the male prison.

Legislation introducing Saturday work orders as an alternative to imprisonment enacted in 1972 followed by amendments to parole legislation in 1975 resulted in a steadily declining prison population through the 1980s, levelling out during the 1990s.

The daily average prison population for 1998-99 will be approximately 328. This represents an imprisonment rate of 69.6 per 100,000 of the general population, which is still one of the lowest in Australia.

Graph showing an increase in the daily average prison population in Tasmania from 1899 to 1999.