Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform

By Morris, Norval; Renaud, Gilles | International Journal of Punishment and Sentencing, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform


Morris, Norval, Renaud, Gilles, International Journal of Punishment and Sentencing


I confess that although I have been a criminal court judge for over a decade, and a criminal defence counsel and later a prosecutor for another decade previously, I had never heard of Maconochie's Gentlemen and I had no more than an inkling of what may have constituted modern prison reform. Whether this is a troubling situation I leave to others to judge ... What is not problematic to evaluate is how well informed I am at present as to the remarkable contributions of Captain Alexander Maconochie to the nascency of the prison reform movement and, as well, to the signal insights and guidance in the field of penology that Professor Norval Morris has offered throughout his career and in particular as a result of this fascinating text. Indeed, inspired by George Orwell's essay, "A Hanging", Professor Morris set out to pen a fictionalized account of the period and events in question, with emphasis on the psychological "truths" that are revealed to any objective observer who has studied the period, followed by a series of discussions of the lessons this story holds out to assist contemporary policy makers, advocates, researchers, criminologists and the judiciary, among others, in their efforts to evaluate current imprisonment practices.

It may be asked at this stage, why should we be interested or concerned with the history of the prison system? After all, if the present system needs to be reformed, let us devote ourselves to that enterprise and let us not be distracted by past events. Indeed, why read the first 176 pages of this tome if the author's lessons are set out at pages 177-213. It is my considered opinion that we will fail to identify the existing shortcomings of our custodial systems if we fail to study closely the philosophies (if any) that animated the prior systems of imprisonment. More to the point, we ought to seek all of the insights that are afforded by direct or first hand accounts of prior prison systems, be they consigned in diaries or fictionalized accounts based on historical records. By way of limited example, in "Buried from The World Inside the Massachusett's State Prison, 1829-1831", edited by P.F. Gura, we are offered penetrating visions of the "penance" inherent in "penitentiary" as reported by a prison chaplain in his "memorandum books" and it is difficult to imagine why we ought to ignore such revealing (and evocative) information. (1)

That having been said, I wish to stress how much I have gained from my reading of the story of England's most punitive prison and its relevance to what Professor Morris has characterized as "... today's excessive, criminogenic, and costly use of incarceration." Refer to p. ixx. Firstly, I was enthralled by the subtle and clever use of a "political foil", an Irish patriot jailed for no apparent reason other than the fact of being other than English and other than a member of the established church. By means of this technique, the author succeeds in juxtaposing the brutish behaviour of certain offenders with the "bookish" behaviour of certain others, but not without making plain that the former may well descend into a brutal state if deprived of humanity and dignity while the latter may be elevated if offered the benefits of education and exemplary conduct. …

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