Book Review: The Penal Colony

November 20, 2012

Book Reviews

Old Prison

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office in California, it costs the state over $47,000 to house a convicted prisoner for a year. 2/3 of the cost are for security and healthcare expenses. Those figures are from 2009 and have probably increased significantly since then.

$47,000. That’s a lot of money to incarcerate a single individual for a year. Considering that in 2007, California state prisons were home for 171,000 inmates, that’s a lot of money for the public to spend on the penal system.

So, what would happen if the government decided to get out of the penal system business? What would happen if the government simply shipped prisoners with life sentences to an island somewhere to make due the best they could?

That’s the premise of Richard Herley’s 1989 book The Penal Colony.

Left to Their Own Devices

Set in 1997, The Penal Colony follows a man sentenced to life in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit. Routledge, an English surveyor with a loving wife and son, is sent to the island of Sert where he will join a couple of hundred other prisoners to live out his remaining days.

There are no guards on the island. No warden. No civilization at all, except for what the felons create.

And they have. Some of the inmates have united and formed a community. A little skeptical at first of the toleration-like rules, Routledge decides to join the community where the felons live peaceably with one another, where they have created some resemblance of an organized society, where they make the best of what they have.

The Penal ColonyBut there’s a catch. To join the community, he must prove his worth and pass a test. He must survive a week outside the community where the “outsiders” live. Those inmates deemed too depraved, too violent, too carnal, for admission to the community, are cast out and live a primal, warring, and brutal existence outside the community.

I won’t spoil the book by providing much more detail than what I have already said. It was definitely worth reading. It’s well-written and Herley tells a compelling story.

A Read for the Prepper

Although this book doesn’t portend a TEOTWAWKI scenario, it does contain several lessons for the prepper.

  • Community. In the absence of all law and order, when the rule of law breaks down, individuals will organize into their own society. We’ve seen this in TEOTWAWKI-related books such as the Lights Out and Lucifer’s Hammer. People of similar values will band together for their own protection.
  • Cooperation. Although communities exist, their structure will likely be very different. Gone will be some of the premises on which current society rests, replaced by a different set of standards that may seem cold by today’s standards but are deemed necessary at the time.
  • Basics. Life will be reduced to a more basic state. It will likely be more than just hunting and gathering, though that will certainly be a part of everyday existence. Making more with less. Reusing even the most modest scraps of available items will be the norm. People skilled in mathematics, engineering, and other advanced skills will be in demand. So will carpenters, masons, and plumbers. Rebuilding society takes knowledge and skill.
  • Values. The Penal Colony takes a very different view of the new society. Rather than bartering becoming the means for acquiring needed materials, Herley examines a world where respect is the ultimate currency. Things take on less value. Respect is what it’s all about.
  • Outsiders. Of course, there will be those who view the new reality as an opportunity to prey on the weak, to have their way without fear of  retribution from the authorities. And any civilized society that pops up must be able to defend itself from the brutality and lawlessness of the outsiders.

Have you The Penal Colony? If not, I’d recommend it. And I’m not alone.  With roughly 100 reviews on Amazon, the book has earned a 4.5 out of 5 star rating.

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3 Comments on “Book Review: The Penal Colony”

  1. rumcrook Says:

    respect,…… seems about right, in many small micro societies/tribes that live in a mostly permanent state of life and death it is incumbent on all members to be respectful becuase so many outside forces are poised to spell your doom you cant afford to have members who cant be respectful, follow rules and contribute to the greater good, being disrespectful is a drain on survival.

    the military for instance~~~respect or lack there of can have deadly results.

    I watched a show on some channel or other last winter in which they put a group of very different people together and had them live a stone age existence out in the wilderness of canada the people who were the least valuable were the ones who could not subordinate their personalities for the good of the group and were disrespectful of others efforts while at the same time demanding respect where none has been earned.

    and in street level gang culture a deformed version of respect is the most important currency becuase no wealth or power can flow with out it.


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