Prison — Australia, men, migration & culture

Colonial Australia was established as a prison in 1788. Britain had been sending its unwanted to North America, but revolution put a stop to it. Over the next 80 years Britain ‘transported’ about 162,000 people, about 1% of its population, to more than 14 locations in what later became Australian territory. (More than: there were some failed attempts.) For about 40 years convicts outnumbered free settlers.

Only one in five of these British rejects were women. This asymmetry affected ‘choice’ variously. More than 200 years later about 20% of Australians have convict ancestry.

Aboriginal Australians were killed in large numbers, by accident (disease) & design (murder & warfare). Even now, their numbers have not recovered to pre-invasion levels. Of these, an unknown but substantial fraction are of mixed descent.

As convict transportation declined, the Irish potato famine killed about one million people & expelled that number of refugees. British policy continued to determine North American & Australian population trends. Gold rushes added a ‘pull-factor’.

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Australian states federated in 1901, moving immediately to reject & even expel non-British people. Surviving Aboriginals were largely confined to ‘missions’ & expected to die. Colonies established to keep unwanted people in became a state concerned to keep them out.

Since then, Australia has oscillated between eager acceptance of immigrants — usually for economic benefit, sometimes for refuge — & continued anxiety about supposed consequences. Despite this ambivalence, immigration continues as it must. (See Population Clock at

Like all developed economies, Australia’s domestic population dynamics — balance between births & deaths, departures & arrivals — would result in population decline without substantial immigration. Healthy, wealthy & educated populations produce fewer children than replacement.

Population policy remains unresolved. How much is too much? How do we balance or even measure economic, environmental & cultural ‘impacts’? Can Australian population policy be sovereign in a world of increasing flows generated by broader economic, environmental, cultural & military concerns than our own?

Our population — at 25M = only 1/3 of 1% of world total — sustains the 13th to 15th largest economy, contributing proportionately to environmental & military drivers of population movement. Most come, as ever, not for what we have but to escape what they cannot endure or even survive.

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Prison policy remains unresolved too. Historical convictions leading to transportation included trivial offences. Laws & courts gave effect to British racial & class oppression (anti-Irish & anti-Catholic). Contemporary convictions express current concerns with drugs & money rather than bread, handkerchiefs or bolts of cloth. In retrospect, present laws & courts will be exposed as similarly oppressive.

Prisoners are not a representative sample of the population. Aboriginals, other ethnic & socially disadvantaged minorities are heavily over-represented. These include people with mental health problems & some awaiting deportation following conviction for a minor offence. After more than two hundred years, law, enforcement & court outcomes continue to express racial & class bias.

Some questions require resolution: is imprisonment punitive or corrective? If corrective, does it work? Is there a nett cost or benefit? If so, to whom? Surely not all of society; there are winners & losers. Prisons create employment but cost much while harming prisoners & their families.

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I was in prison for 14 months from 2017–18. Inside, only a small minority of prisoners are a threat to others. While the largest category of offences, & the fastest growing, are acts intended to cause injury (threatened & actual assaults), most of these are associated with drugs, alcohol & domestic disputes about them.

Almost one third of prisoners are on remand (have been charged but not tried). That proportion is growing. Of these, many plead guilty to end delay, as I did.

Most startling perhaps, more than 90% of prisoners are male. Such extreme disproportion demands explanation. Questions might include:

1. Are men more likely (than women) to behave in ways from which others need protection? This possibility must be taken seriously;

2. Is male behaviour more likely to be defined as criminal?

3. Do men commit ‘crimes’ on behalf of women or families? For instance, it was always my job to ‘score’ or produce cannabis for mutual use. Our convict ancestors committed property & financial crimes to provide for their families; that motivation remains.

4. Are complainants, police, prosecutors & courts less likely to accuse, investigate, charge & convict females?

I believe all these factors operate. Each is a consequence of strong gender asymmetry in our culture.

2. Behaviour is defined as criminal when perceived to threaten some interest with access to law-makers. Historically & presently males control most wealth & power; they see other males as most likely challengers to ‘order’.

3. Men continue to idealise themselves as providers. Reality has moved on, but culture resists change.

4. Male-dominated political & legal apparatus are as much infused with an impulse to protect females as men generally. It’s not universal but where present is reflexive. Removing women from their families, particularly where they have children, is taboo.

  1. The first question — whether men are more dangerous than women — is key.

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They are.

The incidence of every nuisance from domestic violence to international warfare is dominated by men. Yes, there are women who beat their partners & children; disturb their neighbours; are hazardous on roads; brash in public; bullies at home, work & play; predate in business & politics; even provoke conflict… but they are hugely outnumbered by men.


In post-industrial societies men are essentially redundant but most have not yet understood this. Again, culture resists change. However, historically men have (almost) always monopolised wealth, power & violence. Modernity cannot be blamed & might even bring relief… when culture adjusts.

Cultural change is a distinct area of expertise to which I lay no claim. Some observations seem safe though:

  • Change is desirable (at least in male culture).
  • Change is not best achieved by resistance to change. That’s axiomatic of course but intended as a specific repudiation of reaction, conservatism & tradition.
  • Change always requires concession/surrender/perceived loss to enable undefinable (but certain) gain.
  • Change is not a ‘zero-sum game’; it is progressive. Post-industrial society is less brutish than cave-dwelling. For one thing, we live much longer.

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We need men to be less like what they’ve learned men ‘ought’ to be, more like they want to be. For that, they would need to know what they want & families would have to stop making boys into men as we’ve idealised them. That’s a challenge for women too. Men don’t make boys into men; families do, ‘though on my observation women raising boys alone appear to do a better job of it.

As ever, there are two possible responses to redundancy: retrain or retrench. One can imagine a society in which women have understood that unreconstructed men are more trouble than they are worth & got rid of them. The number needed for breeding would be tiny & easily controlled. Human & even ecological survival might depend upon achieving one or other of these outcomes soon.

I’m a man. If I would live long enough I’d prefer a place in the future.

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Perhaps that’s extreme & dystopian. Prisons are full of males, mostly young, with little idea or hope of becoming an adult man. There are school-yard pranks & competitive bullshit, mostly about cars & sexual exploits, petty jealousies & irritations, mindless television & scarcely credible ignorance. Someone told me he wants to be entertained, not educated; he has three children by three mothers.

There’s little malice, more good nature & brotherhood. These are mostly not bad people, they’re just not men, or not what we need men to be or become.

For cultural change to be possible, we’d need some culture to start with. Many of these men have learned little, certainly not how to think or express themselves. A surprising number are either wholly or functionally illiterate & innumerate. School starts too late & lacks exposure & authority sufficient to correct already acquired learning disability.

That’s dystopian.

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Australia’s establishment as a prison might have taught us to mistrust Britain & the old world, yet we remained loyal to it, identified with it. Many of our ancestors died for it. Australia’s initial population by enforced refugees from British ‘justice’ might have taught us to welcome others, yet we closed our doors to difference at the first opportunity, relenting mainly for gain half a century later. Even now, fear of others haunts the political & cultural landscape.

But we are young & free. We can do everything differently if we choose: law, prisons, gender, identity. After more than two hundred years, we’ve much more to learn from our Aboriginal friends than from intellectual necrophilia (indecent attachment to long dead ideas).

The cultural change we need is trivial compared to what they have endured in that time. They’re still here, resilient & gracious.