Mountjoy was initially set up as a holding prison for convicts due for transportation to Van Dieman’s land, which is now known as Tasmania. Any criminal with a sentence of 7 years or longer could be transported. Leg irons were used for transportation. Prisoners, convicted in the early 1850’s, were put in leg irons, chained together and taken to Spike Island and from there were transported in convict ships to Van Dieman’s land.
By 1853, with the introduction of the Penal Servitude act, only long-term transportation was retained. Transportation was finally abolished after the Penal Servitude act of 1857. However some prisoners were still transported after this date. In Mountjoy Prison in the 1860's Fenian prisoners involved in the uprising were transported to Fremantle prison in Western Australia.
Some old cell door prisoner id cards were found behind an old press in the Governor's office. These dated from the mid 19th century. Instead of the normal rectangular shaped cards, these were shaped like the gable end of a house, which indicated that the prisoner was serving a penal servitude sentence. Under the Penal servitude system prisoner did not, strictly, earn a remission of his sentence, but became eligble for earlier release on a conditional licence: the sentence remained in force and on breach of licence he might be required to serve the unexpired portion, again with the power to earn earlier release on a fresh licence. However if a prisoner happened to escape successfully and stayed on the run, the time he was serving still continued. If, for example, a prisoner were to escape and avoid being captured till his sentence expired, he would be legally a free man.
On release, a penal servitude prisoner would have a new suit made to measure. This was known as a Liberty suit (see Curator's Choice)
Types of Punishment - Transportation and Penal Servitude
The alternative to hanging was transportation, where convicted criminals were sent to the colonies to serve their sentence. Any criminal with a sentence of 7 years or longer could be transported. Later in the Victorian Period this was replaced with Penal Servitude. After the 1853 Penal Servitude act, only long-term transportation was retained and transportation was finally abolished after the Penal Servitude act of 1857, although some were still transported after this date. For more information see the section on transportation.
Penal Servitude means 'Serving a sentence that is meant to punish the prisoner'. Penal Servitude was a term of imprisonment that usually included hard labour and was served in this country. This gradually replaced transportation following the 1853 and 1857 Penal Servitude Acts. The sentence for Penal Servitude could range from 3 years to life; it was for those convicts who would have been transported for less than 14 years. It could also be used as an alternative sentence for those liable to transportation of 14 years or more. Sentences of 7 years transportation or less were substituted by Penal Servitude for 4 years; 7 to 10 years transportation by 4 to 10 years; 10 to 15 years by 6 to 8 years' Penal Servitude; over 15 years' transportation by 6 to 10 years' Penal Servitude; transportation for life by Penal Servitude for life.
Therefore records tended to put transportation and Penal Servitude together. This clumsy system of converting transportation to Penal Servitude equivalents was theoretically ended by the Penal Servitude Act of 1857; subsequently prisoners were sentenced directly to Penal Servitude if found guilty of offences that formerly warranted transportation. However, in practice, convicts were still being transported as late as 1867, so there continued to be a hazy overlap between the sentencing of transportation and Penal Servitude for many years.
In some cases the Bedford Gaol records list both 'Penal Servitude and transportation' as the sentence. It is likely that prisoners sentenced to 7 years or more, before 1853, were transported but after 1867 served their sentence in English prisons. Between 1853 and 1867, for sentences of 7 years or more, either sentence or elements of both could have been used. Only by tracing what happened to individuals is it possible to determine where their final sentence was actually served. For examples within the GAOL databases, try searching on Henry Catlin (1843); William Jones (1861); and Walter Pratt (1864). Evidence from the records held at Fremantle Prison, Western Australia, show that prisoners sentenced to Penal Servitude but who were, in fact, transported, could return to England at the end of their sentence.
From the days of transportation and the early penal servitude system, eligibility to earn remission of part of the sentence by good conduct and industry has been the first and most valuable privilege accorded to prisoners, as the powers to forfeit remission has been and remains one of the strongest sanctions against bad conduct. Under the penal servitude system a convict did not, strictly, earn a remission of his sentence, but became eligible for earlier release on a conditional license: the sentence remained in force and on breach of license he might be required to serve the unexpired portion, again with the power to earn earlier release on a fresh license. But when by the Prison Act 1898 this privilege was extended from penal servitude to imprisonment, the person sentenced to imprisonment could earn an absolute remission: when he was discharged the sentence was deemed to have expired. On the abolition of penal servitude by the Criminal Justice Act 1948, this system of absolute remission was continued for all sentences of imprisonment of whatever length, save rof young prisoners. For persons sentenced to corrective training or preventive detention the conditional license system is retained.