Exiling Madness: The Legacies of Separate Treatment

Honey Dower PhD Candidate - University of Tasmania

Before their arrival in the Australian colonies, British convicts were imprisoned in various institutions awaiting their transportation. This effort concentrated in the 1840s, with all British convicts exposed a system of prison discipline hitherto underexplored in relation to colonial transportation: that of separate treatment. Separate treatment sought to guide a prisoner to redemption through moral and religious instruction, and confined them in a cell for twenty three hours a day to force prisoners to confront their innate criminality. Reports soon arose around the injurious effect this isolated - or solitary - confinement had on prisoners. The prison synonymous with separate treatment was Pentonville Prison in London, an institution that was the architectural and disciplinary model for separate treatment prisons across the British empire, including the Port Arthur Separate Prison on the Tasman Peninsula. 

My thesis takes a longitudinal approach to prisoner health in confinement. Contemporary studies on the impact of solitary confinement on prisoner health and well-being are limited, though the overwhelming consensus is that exposure to a period of isolation is detrimental physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, and can have an intergenerational effect. Given the style of systematic confinement in colonial Van Diemen's Land, many convicts were confined multiple times under sentence, and at Port Arthur, this confinement was strongest - and most experimental - at the Separate Prison. Archival and contemporary accounts allude that a period in the Separate Prison was a quick road to an asylum. Previous historians have undertaken qualitative assessments of these accounts. My thesis is a quantitative intervention into a complicated question: is solitary confinement a risk to mental health?

The prisoner cohort for my research is derived from the first men sentenced to transportation and exposed to separate treatment in Britain prior to their arrival in the Australian colonies. Over 3,000 prisoners were confined at Pentonville Prison from 1842-49 for upwards of a year. Once in the colony, their convict conduct record accounts for each additional period of confinement. I focus on the Separate Prison at Port Arthur, an institution modeled on Pentonville Prison. Some convicts were imprisoned here multiple times under sentence; some were subsequently admitted to hospitals or asylums as a result of their prolonged confinement. This thesis adopts a life course approach to understanding the impact of isolated confinement on convict health, and whether their exposure to such an intense discipline affected their lives post-sentence.