Section 3: Prisons

Historical Overview

Prisons developed directly in association with the system of convict transportation. Over fifty years from 1803 to 1853, 73,500 convicts were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Most undertook assigned work, but those who transgressed the law were sentenced to 'secondary punishment stations', prisons where the work and punishment were more brutal than normal. The first stations opened were Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island (1825-32). The last station opened was Port Arthur in 1830.

In 1817, a prison was built in Murray Street, Hobart, and a convict barracks in Campbell Street in 1821. Used progressively as a civilian prison from 1846, it became Hobart's prison after convict transportation ended in 1853. The Murray Street prison was dismantled the following year. Meanwhile, the Launceston prison was built in 1827. Women convicts and children were housed at female factories at the Cascades in Hobart (opened 1828), George Town (1829), Launceston (1832) and Ross (1847). Women in such prisons worked at laundry and sewing tasks - reflecting the status of the institutions as workhouses and places of manufacture.

In 1834, a Boys' Prison was established at Point Puer, a few miles from Port Arthur. It operated until 1848-49, and featured education, trade training and religious instruction as a means to reform, rather than simply punish, juvenile offenders.

A new type of prison building was constructed at Port Arthur between 1848 and 1852. Unlike a 'barracks', it divided prisoners into separate cells. According to principles of the 'penitentiary', such segregation, accompanied by strict rules of silence, would allow inmates space in which to reflect on their crimes and thus be reformed. After transportation ceased in 1853, Port Arthur remained a prison until its closure in 1877.

By 1900 only two prisons remained: Hobart Prison (Campbell Street) and Launceston Prison. Female prisoners were kept in each location in an annex attached to the male prison. The Launceston Prison mainly acted as a temporary repository for offenders about to go to court in the north and north-west. Both prisons were heavily criticised, and subject to numerous royal commission investigations. The Launceston Prison was closed in 1917, and its functions were transferred to the police watch house. Male prisoners were finally moved out of the Hobart Prison in 1960; female prisoners had to wait until 1963. Partly in response to constant negative criticism of the prison, those inmates considered less dangerous were offered places at Hayes Prison Farm, established in 1937.
In 1960 a new male prison was opened at Risdon. A separate prison for women was built on the site in 1963. In 1974, a low security unit, later named the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison, was added. In 1978, a special prison hospital was built, which could house persons suffering mental illness who were subject to the criminal justice system. In 1999, the Hobart Remand Centre was completed. Located between the Hobart Police Station and the Court of Petty Sessions, it provides accommodation for offenders awaiting trial. In 2004, the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison was closed, as part of a re-development project on the site. A newly rebuilt facility, incorporating both the men's and women's prisons, was opened in 2007.

Source : White, R. (2008)
Copyright 2008 : Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies
Further reading: J Hirst, 'The Australian experience', in N Morris & D Rothman (eds), The Oxford history of the prison, New York, 1995; C Evans, A pink palace?, Hobart, 2004.
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 (ABS 1301.6, 2000)

Current facilities

The Tasmania Prison Service currently operates six correctional facilities throughout the state

  • Risdon Prison Complex (RPC)
  • Mary Hutchinson Womens Prison
  • Ron Barwick Minimum Security Prison
  • Hobart Reception Centre
  • Launceston Reception Centre
  • Hayes Prison Farm

The new Prison was officially opened on 28 August 2006.

Risdon Prison Complex (RPC)
This facility accommodates maximum and medium security male inmates.

Risdon Prison Hospital 
Within the Risdon Prison Complex, there is a new prison Hospital. The Hospital is administered by Correctional Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

Ron Barwick Minimum Security Prison
The Ron Barwick Minimum Security Prison is the name given to the old Risdon Prison, which now accommodates minimum security inmates, following the opening of the new medium/maximum prison at Risdon in 2006. The history of Ron Barwick is detailed in the section below under ‘closed facilities'.

Mary Hutchinson Womens Prison
The Mary Hutchinson Womens Prison, the only female facility in Tasmania, was officially opened in May 2006. It accommodates women of all security classifications and has a capacity for 45 inmates. The facility allows accommodation for the children of inmates.

(See Prisons Infrasturcture Redevelopment Program for further details )

Wilfred Lopes Centre for Forensic Mental Health
In 2006, within the grounds of the Tasmanian Prison Service at Risdon, a stand alone Forensic Mental Health facility known as the Wilfred Lopes Centre for Forensic Mental Health. The Centre is owned and managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS 2008). It accommodates people with acute mental illness who require specialist mental health inpatient treatment. Patients may include prisoners, people appearing in, or remanded from, Magistrate and Supreme Courts, and those found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) or Unfit to Plead and placed on a Forensic Order (DHHS 2008)

History of the re-building of the new Risdon prison (2006)

In her report, tabled on 27 March 2001, Justice Tennent mooted the idea of the construction of a new prison (Evans 2004 : 100). On 10 April 2001, a $53 million dollar project was announced to build a new prison with facilities for maximum and medium security inmates (Evans 2004 : 101). A feature of the proposed new prison was that the reconstructed women's prison would be suitable for young children (Evans 2004 : 101) Minimum security inmates would be housed in the old prison, with plans to eventually improve those facilities (Evans 2004).

In November 2003, Fairbrother Pty Ltd in partnerships with John Holland Pty Ltd, were awarded the $58.0 million [contract for the] construction of the Tasmania Prisons Redevelopment Program (Stage 3) at Risdonvale. The new development included the construction of a 219 bed men's prison, a 45 bed women's prison and a 38 bed Secure Mental Health Unit (Fairbrother website).

In 2004-2005, the scope of the works for the new Prison ‘… was extended to include an additional 84 medium security cells in response to the rapidly increasing prison population' (DOJ 2004-05 : 78)

History of Risdon Prison - built in 1960

Following a 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 (ABS 1301.6, 2000 : 3)

It was not until 1956 that positive moves were made to commence design of the new prison which was hailed as ‘state of the art' and the most advanced concept in prison architecture in Australia. Prisoners were accommodated in single occupancy cells with toilet, hand-basin and running water. Heating was provided to cells, together with headphones for listening local radio stations. During the course of construction of the male prison, an upsurge in the prison population raised concerns that the new facility would be too small and the plans were quickly modified. What had been intended to be three accommodation blocks was divided into six, by adding 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 prisoners 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, which was largely constructed of timber and had no fire protection system (ABS 1301.6, 2000 : 3). Rebuilding occupied three years with most of the work performed by inmates, under staff supervision, at a cost of $300,000.

In 1960 a new male prison was opened at Risdon. A separate prison for women was built on the site in 1963. In 1974, a low security unit, later named the Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison, was added. In 1978, a special prison hospital was built, which could house persons suffering mental illness who were subject to the criminal justice system (White 2008)

Hayes Prison Farm

  • Classification             Minimum/Male
  • Capacity                   70
  • Function                    Holds low/open security prisoners on a farm

The property for the Hayes Prison Farm was acquired in 1937 and 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 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. (ABS 2000). After a number of transformations, the cell and administration buildings were replaced in 1964 by a concrete block construction which provides accommodation for 70 minimum security inmates

Hobart Reception Centre

  • Classification             All security levels       Male and female
  • Capacity                   40
  • Function                    Remand centre for Hobart

Previously known as the Hobart Remand Centre, this facility was opened in January 1999. The Centre, built over five floors, contained 40 single-occupancy cells for those awaiting trial, plus 10 cells for police watch house cases. All cells were centrally heated and fitted with a shower, toilet and hand basin. Outdoor recreation space was provided in a secure area on the roof (ABS 1306.1, 2000). A feature of the building is its connection one side to Hobart Police Station and on the other to the Courts of Petty Sessions - greatly reducing prisoner movement (O'Toole 2006 : 178)

Launceston Reception Centre

  • Classification             All security levels       Male and female
  • Capacity                   33
  • Function                    Remand centre for Launceston

Previously known as the Launceston Remand Centre, this facility began life as the Launceston Prison.

Ashley Youth Detention Centre

Ashley was gazetted as a Youth Detention Centre under the Youth Justice Act 1997, in February 2000. Ashley is Tasmania's only youth custodial facility, accommodating young men and women aged 10-17 years on remand and detention orders.

Over time at Ashley, there has been ‘a practice shift from “welfare” to a “restorative justice” model [and] rehabilitative programs are provided in accordance with the principles of the Youth Justice Act 1997. The facility's vision is ‘working together to enhance a young person's return to the community' (Smith & Douglas 2006)

A statistical overview of Ashley's clients in 2004/2005

  • 200 admissions to the centre, an increase of 14% on 2003/04 and 35% on 2001/02
  • Remands account for 93% of all admissions
  • 20% of young people admitted are aged 10-14 years
  • 50% of young people admitted are aged 15-16 years
  • 30% of young people admitted are 17 years or older
  • 17% of admissions are females
  • Average length of stay on remand is 28 days
  • Average length of stay on detention is 96 days

Source: Smith & Douglas 2006

A social overview of Ashley's clients in 2004/2005

  • Young Aborigines continue to be over-represented in detention (6.5% of admissions)
  • A large proportion of young people in custody are affected by neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Many detainees have committed serious offences involving violence
  • Some suffer depression and emotional instability
  • A significant number of young people in custody report having attempted suicide or self-harm
  • Many leave school before Year 8 and have low literacy skills (Smith & Douglas 2006)

Smith & Douglas (2006) cite the key service outcomes for Ashley Youth Detention Centre as :

  • Provision of a high quality secure care environment for young people
  • Rehabilitation of young people to enable them to become more responsible citizens
  • Improved health and wellbeing outcomes for young people in custody
  • Improved capacity for reintegration of young people
  • Promotion of organization and management structure that provides “best practice” service for young people in custody
  • Promotion of the 5 principles of restorative justice
    • Responsibility
    • Rehabilitation
    • Reparation
    • Diversion
    • Deterrence

Under an incentive scheme, young people are provided with opportunities to learn to make choices, manage their own behaviour responsibly and take responsibility for their actions (Smith & Douglas 2006). Under an incident management scheme, young people and the Detention Centre are restored to the healthy state that existed before an incident occurred, which constitutes a practice of restorative justice in a custodial setting, for the purpose of ensuring the safety of all residents and staff of the Centre at all times (Smith & Douglas 2006)

Closed Facilities

Hobart Gaol Campbell Street
In the first half of the 20th century, Campbell Street Gaol was the subject of six separate inquiries, all concluding it desperately needed to be modernised and conditions upgraded (O'Toole 2006 : 94).

In 1916, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works inquired into the need for major remodelling of the Gaol, instead recommending the building of 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 (dating from 1813) for administration purposes.

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, which made it more humane and convenient to keep prisoners locked in their cells over weekends and holidays

A Royal Commission into shortcomings in the prison system took place in 1935, but the report was never printed and all trace has been lost.This 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 Standing Committee was to replace the gaol with a modern facility to replace the deplorable conditions in Campbell Street. Part of the consideration was to remove the gaol to the country “but not more distant than 30 miles” and that it should be suitable for farming by the less dangerous prisoners, which would also render the system self-sufficient in meat, vegetables, dairy produce and fuel. A property was eventually selected in 1937 at Hayes, which became the Hayes Prison Farm. The idea of transferring all of the prison operations to Hayes was subsequently abandoned.

Following a Royal Commission in 1943, resulting from a series of escapes from Campbell Street [Hobart Gaol]. 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. The 1943 Royal Commission [also] heard that [the southern section] of the building was still in use as cells including four solitary confinement dark cells. However it would be ten years before the much anticipated and long over-due Risdon Prison was opened in 1960. (ABS 1301.6, 2000).

Risdon Prison Hospital

In 1970 approval was given for a two storey building with medical psychiatric beds (Evans 2004 : 39), however in 1971 the building of the medical/psychiatric unit was delayed due to budgetary constraints.

By 1974, then Labour Minister for Health, Dr Alan Foster, was announcing plans for a hospital which would ‘usher in a new era in the management of disturbed people, and as he explained “hopefully … help in the correction of personality disorders which often led criminals to repeat offences soon after discharge from prison” (Evans 2004 : 48). Perhaps as a compromise, ‘in June 1974, a full-time mental health officer was appointed to set up a limited mental health service' (Evans 2004 : 48).

In 1975 a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works again considered a new hospital. The proposal included 20 beds to provide basic medical care and a place of rehabilitation following surgery at the Royal, before inmates were fit enough to abscond (Evans 2004 : 48), with a further 10 beds for psychiatric patients. Surgeries were planned for a Doctor and Dentist, as well as a dispensary and physiotherapy room. Outpatient care was to be provided by a Medical Officer, Social Worker, Welfare Officer and Psychiatrist through the Mental Health Services Commission's Forensic Branch (Evans 2004 : 48). Once again, the hospital was deferred, due to a cutback in Commonwealth Government funds.

In 1978, a 28 bed hospital was added to the eastern end of Risdon Prison. Proclaimed as a special institution under the Mental Health Act, it housed persons suffering mental illness who were subject to the criminal justice system. The hospital provided medical treatment for prisoners requiring in-patient care as well as out-patient services for Risdon Prison inmates (ABS 1301.6, 2000 : 3). Hospital staff included a part-time locum Doctor who was also on call, a charge nurse and six deputy charge nurses, all male (Evans 2004 : 66).The hospital got off to a shaky start, with four nurses resigning by December 1978. An unintended feature of the building's architecture was a suspended ceiling, which provided an ideal space for hiding things (Evans 2004).

Ron Barwick Medium Security Prison

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. This unit was later 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.

On 28 February 1997 Ron Barwick closed because of funding cuts, with a loss of six jobs, although 2 officers were redeployed to other areas (Evans 2004). Some inmates relocated to Hayes Prison Farm and the remainder to a new medium security prison built inside the walls using cells enclosed from A Division (Evans 2004 : 80,85). The medium security facility was re-opened in April 1991 and named after Prison Officer, Ron Barwick (Evans 2004). The unit accommodated 36 medium or minimum security inmates and Officers volunteered to work there. In 1999, Ron Barwick was used as a Youth Detention Centre and was briefly re-opened in 2001 as a medium security unit. It was subsequently demolished in 2004 to make way for the new prison.

Launceston Prison

In 1914 part of the Launceston prison site was given to the Education Department for a new State high school, but the incompatibility of a new high school in such close proximity to the prison resulted in complete abandonment of the prison site and the transfer of the prison function to the police watch house in 1917. (ABS 1301.6, 2000). Conditions in the Launceston police watch-house were cramped and the facility was designed to keep inmates for short periods only. It was quite unsatisfactory for long-term use as a prison. Despite these obvious deficiencies, it was in continuous use until the construction of new police buildings in 1976 (O'Toole 2006 : 174)

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 (ABS 1301.6, 2000)

Management of the Launceston Prison transferred to the Police Department after WWI, although prisoners remained the responsibility of the prison system. (ABS 1301.6, 2000). 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 (ABS 1301.6, 2000). In 1991 full control and staffing of the prison function in Launceston was returned to Corrective Services (ABS 1301.6, 2000)