The penal colony functioned for 48 years, from 1830 to 1878. In that time it is estimated that 12,000 men and boys passed through its walls.
This was however, a fraction of the total prisoners sent to Tasmania (said to be some 57,000) and was reserved for those considered to be the most hardened criminals, re-offenders and troublemakers. The prison was for the time considered to be a “model,” where brutal corporal punishment had been set aside and trouble was met with solitary confinement. For those who still rebelled there was the option of being shipped off to the infamous Sarah Island.
Prisoners would be kept busy with the upkeep of the colony itself, building and learning some trades during their time there. There was even a 7 kilometer wooden-railed tramway that ran across the Port Arthur peninsula carrying freight and passengers with prisoners as the motive power.
However, many worked in the adjacent coal mines spending much of their time mining and living in cells underground in horrible conditions. The mine operated from 1834 to 1842 and the mine ruins can still be seen north of the colony on Norfolk Bay.