Alexander Maconochie – a forgotten penal reformer?

4 Dec 2018

By John Samuels QC, President, Prisoners’ Education Trust

Alexander Maconochie

In a speech first delivered at the PET Carol Concert, the charity's President John Samuels QC offers his personal reflections on an important but little-known figure in the history of prison reform.

Some of you may remember that, two years ago, I reminded you, on his birthday, of the inspirational words of Winston Churchill when Home Secretary. Few of you needed to be reminded of them; and all of you knew of whom I spoke. I suspect that the prison reformer of whom I speak tonight will be far less well-known; yet he deserves the recognition widely afforded to John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and all those who recognise the aphorism, originally coined by him, that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, and not for punishment.

In PET we know that education is often a key to the kind of change which Maconochie promoted.

Alexander Maconochie, like John Howard (as well as your President), came to penal reform by accident. His primary career was that of a naval officer and subsequently a geographer. Born in 1787, in 1833 he became the first Professor of Geography at University College London. In 1836, as private secretary to Sir John Franklin, the governor of what is now Tasmania, he wrote a report strongly critical of the state of prison discipline among those who had been transported. He wrote:

“The convict system, being fixated on punishment alone, released back into society crushed, resentful and bitter men, in whom the spark of enterprise and hope was dead.”

While there was no tabloid press to inveigh against such liberal thinking, Parliament was outraged. Maconochie was reluctantly dismissed by Franklin. However three years later he was appointed as Commandant of the penal settlement on Norfolk Island, where he applied his two basic principles of penology:

  • As cruelty debases both the victim and society, punishment should not be vindictive but should aim at the reform of the convict; and
  • A convict’s imprisonment should consist of task, not time sentences, with release depending on the performance of a measurable amount of labour.

When he died in 1860 he was still campaigning for penal reform.

In both respects Maconochie anticipated by over 180 years the concept of judicial monitoring which some of you may recognise as having become my personal enthusiasm. Central to his thinking was the belief that a prisoner should be able to influence the length of what is deprivation of liberty by his personal commitment to change.

In PET we know that education, and the opportunity for personal improvement which education offers, is often a key to the kind of change which Maconochie promoted.

Despite widespread praise for his humanity, both on Norfolk Island and later as Governor of the new prison in Birmingham, Maconochie was dismissed from each post, overcome by the forces of a conservative approach to sentencing. When he died in 1860 he was still campaigning for penal reform. While properly lauded in Australia, where he is known as the Father of Parole, perhaps PET, as the leading educational charity it is, might help to restore this largely forgotten hero to the pedestal on which he should rightly stand.