Australia And The Possibility Of Radical Change

Book publishers seem not to consider Australian history to be a very interesting subject, since there are very few books available about it beyond the excellent The Fatal Shore. But I enjoyed Frank Welsh’s Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land after I picked it up randomly at a Borders liquidation sale. One of the nice things about Welsh’s book is that it’s a history of Australia, but it maintains an international perspective, keeping an eye on the developments in London and elsewhere in the Commonwealth that drove developments.

Still, the main thing that stuck with me is the basic story of Australia’s founding and then its transition away from prison colony status. In particular, just the scale of the change in thinking about the appropriate way to treat convicted criminals over time is simply enormous. Today it’s commonplace to deplore mass incarceration in the United States or details about prison conditions, but more or less taken for granted that warehousing people in prisons is what you ought to do with them as punishment for their crimes. And yet prison is both frighteningly expensive and also a near-total failure at its original rehabilitative goals.