Prisons and punishment: Maconochie’s experiment and its relevance today

I have just read John Clay’s book Maconochie’s experiment (London:  John Murray, 2001).  Alexander Maconochie was put in charge of the penal colony of Norfolk Island, off the Australian coast, in 1840, at a time when the regime there was not only harsh but sadistic, with horrendous floggings in addition to back-breaking and soul-destroying labour.  He had a revolutionary idea:  he would treat them decently.  I am writing this on the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II;  one of his first acts was to give the convicts a special meal and an entertainment on Queen Victoria’s birthday, for which he was reprimanded by the Governor of New South Wales and the Home Secretary.

Maconochie wrote:  ‘Degraded servants make suspicious masters … the total disuse, moreover, or moral motives in the domestic relations of life, and the habit of enforcing obedience by mere compulsion, give a harsh and peremptory bearing in all transactions, which being met by a corresponding tone in others … every difference of opinion constitutes a ground of quarrel, and disunion becomes extensively prevalent.’ (Clay, p. 70).  This sounds relevant to the way offenders are treated today.

As regards deterrence. ‘To suppose that in this onward career [of crime] they will be stayed by the dread of severe punishment is to reason in opposition to all past experience, and all theory correctly based on it.  The hope of impunity in such minds will always overcome the fear of punishment; and the true way of reducing crime is to weed out these persons, if possible, at an early period of their career, and then, by due training, gain or remove them.’ (p. 180)

Clay comments:  ‘Crime stirred then, as it still stirs today, deep emotions.  For [politicians and civil servants in] London, reform itself was a threat since too many reformed criminals might imply that there was no such thing as a criminal class, that crime itself was mostly circumstantial, and that the prevailing ideology of a justifiable hierarchical class system needed to be revised.  This was much too dangerous a concept to be entertained.’ (p.  255)

Clay quotes Charles Dickens’s American notes on his visit to the Eastern Penitentiary at Philadelphia in 1842:  I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony   which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts … There is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers can fathom.  I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body;  and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface … therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay’ (p. 257).

And Maconochie stated (to a House of Lords select committee in 1857) what many others have said: ‘ My experience leads me to say that no man is utterly incorrigible.  Treat him as a man, and not as a dog.  You cannot recover a man except by doing justice to the manly qualities which he may have about him, and giving him an interest in developing them.’ (p. 265-6).