Separate Prison opens another glimpse into the past

August 15, 2008

The Premier today joined with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd MP reopen the first stage of the Separate Prison Conservation Project at the Port Arthur Historic Site.

The million-dollar project, funded jointly by the Commonwealth Government and the Port Arthur Historic Site’s conservation program which is supported by the State Government, is designed to conserve the existing fabric of the building and to give visitors a strong sense of what it was like to be incarcerated in the prison, in which inmates were kept in solitary confinement and deprived of virtually all contact with others.

In his speech, the Premier detailed the importance of the Separate Prison.

“The Port Arthur Historic Site is without question one of Australia’s most important cultural heritage places. The Separate Prison is in turn arguably one of the most important structures within the Historic Site.

“Opened nearly 20 years after the founding of Port Arthur, it represents a bold nineteenth century experiment into reforming criminals and changing attitudes towards crime and punishment.

“The emphasis shifted from hard labour and physical punishment, so often brought to mind by stories of Tasmania’s past, and of Port Arthur in particular, to isolation and psychological punishment. The theory was that a quiet, orderly environment would allow a man to contemplate his sin and thus be reformed.”

Prisoners at the Separate Prison were kept alone in their cells for 23 hours per day. For one hour they were let out alone into an exercise yard with walls so high they could see nothing but the sky.

“It was a bold experiment, and perhaps a misguided one. While there is no documentary evidence of the mental decline of inmates, modern experiences with men under similar conditions demonstrate that this kind of treatment can lead to serious psychological damage.

“When we see this building today, it is easy for us to criticise the authorities of the time for creating such an apparently cruel system. However legacies from this building are still apparent in our modern prisons and the age old questions of crime and punishment and the best ways of ‘reforming’ criminals are issues that we still struggle with today.”

Minister O’Byrne highlighted the importance of heritage conservation.

“More and more Australians are seeking to explore our nation’s heritage in order to define and understand community values and identities and forge our place in the modern world.

“Being able to visit places such as Port Arthur, which represents such a fundamental component of our history and tells its stories so well, is a vital part of that process.

“With the likelihood of World Heritage listing, following the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage nomination, its reputation is only going to grow.

Ms O’Byrne went on to reiterate the Government’s commitment to heritage conservation at Port Arthur.

“We are proud that the Government has been intimately involved in this exciting project. Our support of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority through ongoing funding of its conservation program is a sound investment – economically, socially and culturally, providing outstanding returns to our community on all counts.

“The Tasmanian Government will be continuing to work closely with the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority to ensure that the Government’s conservation obligations are not just met, but that Port Arthur and its associated historic sites continue to be significant in all these areas and to thrive.”

PAHSMA Project Manager Jo Lyngcoln addresses the gathering

PAHSMA Project Manager Jo Lyngcoln addresses the gathering

Guests packed into the Separate Prison

Guests packed into the Separate Prison

The PM spoke with the crew that worked on the project

The PM spoke with the crew that worked on the project…

and joined PAHSMA's Conservation & Infrastructure team for a photo

… and joined PAHSMA’s Conservation & Infrastructure team for a photo…

... before heading off to see the Historic Site

… before heading off to see the Historic Site