Chronology of the Prisoner Movement in Australia

Dig deep in our penal history and you will find the underlying dynamics of Australian society.

Babette Smith (2010)

The history of the prisoner movement in Australia exists within the broader evolution of Australian class society. Since our transition from a penal colony into a nation-state, Australia’s problematic relationship with the past has been reflected in the formation of national and cultural identity and socio-economic and political shifts in its history. It was convicts and their descendants, responsible for clearing the land and building original colonial infrastructure, who came to develop a nascent form of Australian national consciousness distinct from their British gaolers. The treatment of the convict prisoner legacy by society and historians from the mid-eighteenth century until the emergence of revisionist accounts in the 1960s reflects the broader tendency of Australian history to marginalise or disregard disturbing aspects of our past. The history of the prisoner movement in Australia is therefore critical to understand the development of predominant notions of ‘Australian culture’, ‘values’ and ‘identity’. This project aims to understand and explain how Australia’s origins as a penal colony have shaped the profound role of prisoners in this process of social and cultural change. 

21st Century

2011 – Snapshot of the prison population by numbers  Based on first day of the month averages, for the June quarter 2011, there were 83,573 persons under the authority of corrective services (excluding those in periodic detention). The total comprised 28,964 persons in full-time custody and 54,609 persons in community-based corrections, which consist of non-custodial orders served under the authority of adult corrective services agencies and include restricted movement, reparations (fine options and community service) and supervision orders (parole, bail and sentenced probation) (ABS 2011).

Nationally, the June quarter 2011 average daily imprisonment rate was 166 prisoners per 100,000 adult population. Northern Territory had the highest imprisonment rate (748 prisoners per 100,000 adult population), followed by Western Australia (262) and New South Wales (179). The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria had the lowest imprisonment rates (87 and 107 prisoners per 100,000 adult population respectively) (ABS 2011).

The average daily number of full-time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult prisoners in Australia in the June quarter 2011 was 7,621, comprising 6,997 (92%) males and 624 (8%) females. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners represented 26% of the total full-time prisoner population in the June quarter 2011. The national average daily Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate in the June quarter 2011 was 2,242 per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (ABS 2011).

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009, Prisoners in Australia 2009 – Table 4 Crude imprisonment rates, states and territories, 1999-2009, Cat. No. 4517.0,

2011 – Justice Action initiated the computer project, which resulted in 100 computers being donated to prisons from the corporate and community sectors. However once Corrective Services NSW became aware that Justice Action had facilitated the donations they ordered that the computers be returned to the JA office.

2010 The health and well-being of prisoners in 2010  (statistics compiled by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare)

Mental health issues

Prisoners in Australia have high rates of mental health related issues. In 2010, 31% of prison entrants reported having been told they had a mental health illness and 16% of prison entrants reported that they were currently taking mental health related medication. On entry to prison, almost one-fifth of prison entrants were referred to the prison mental health services for observation and further assessment following the reception assessment.

Almost 1 in 10 prisoners in custody visited the clinic for a psychological or mental health issue, and 1 in 5 prisoners in custody was taking mental health related medication. When looking at the type of medication, 18% of all repeat medication was for depression/mood stabilisers, 9% for antipsychotics, 2% for anti-anxiety medication and 1% for sleep disturbance.

‘Risky’ health behaviours

Prison entrants in Australia reported previously engaging in various ‘risky’ health behaviours, such as smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol at extreme levels and using illicit drugs. Four in five prison entrants reported being a current smoker, and three in four reported being a daily smoker. More than half of prison entrants reported drinking alcohol at levels that placed them at risk of alcohol-related harm, while less than 20 per cent reported that they did not drink. Further, two-thirds of prison entrants reported illicit drug use in the previous 12 months. These rates are all substantially higher than in the general community.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison entrants were significantly over-represented in the entrants’ sample, with 43% being Indigenous, compared with 2.5% in the general population. Indigenous prison entrants reported poorer health behaviours than non-Indigenous prison entrants, and were more likely to be current smokers (89% compared with 79%) and to have consumed alcohol at levels considered to place them at risk of alcohol-related harm (73% compared with 48%) in the previous 12 months. However, Indigenous prison entrants reported lower level of mental health related issues (23% compared with 38%), use of mental health medication upon entry to prison (12% compared with 19%), and chronic conditions.

(Source: AIHW 2011. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2010. Cat. no. PHE 149. Canberra: AIHW)

Furthermore, according to ABS data, ‘Over half (55%) of prisoners in custody at 30 June 2010 had served a sentence in an adult prison prior to the current episode. Of those prisoners sentenced in the last twelve months, 58% had a prior imprisonment’ (ABS 2010). This data highlights the role of the prison system as a catchment for disadvantaged groups, and one that continues to fail in addressing the deep-seated social disadvantage and isolation that contributes to offending and subsequent recidivism.

2010 – Justice Action opposed the Department of Health’s attempts to implement smoke-free policies in NSW mental health inpatient facilities, an environment in which 80 per cent of consumers smoke. A website was prepared to articulate these concerns: after requests for support from consumer representatives around NSW. JA argued that voluntary quit programs which couple education programs with quit-aids such as ‘nicorettes’ and patches would be more successful in the long-term than a blanket ban, whilst also upholding the ‘dignity of risk’ and rights of a vulnerable client group. However, the ban was upheld and as of 2011 the right of inpatients to smoke in mental health facilities had been rescinded.

Junee Correctional services, NSW. photo: Anya van Lit, june 2009.

Guards in Riot Uniforms outside Junee Prison 2009

Source: State Library of NSW

2007 – In consultation with women inmates at the Emu Plains Correctional Centre, Justice Action fought administrational changes to all-day visitations that reduced the amount of time mothers were able to spend with their children; however the campaign was unsuccessful and the issues of visitation remains an ongoing battle.

High Court win – On 30 August 2007, the High Court of Australia overturned the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006 which said that anyone in prison when the election writ is issued would be disqualified from voting, arguing that these provisions violated the Australian Constitution and were therefore invalid (Vicki Lee Roach v Electoral Commissioner and Commonwealth of Australia, 30 August 2007, High Court of Australia).This means that prisoners serving a sentence less than three years can vote in a federal election. However, prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more remain ineligible to vote in federal elections for the duration of their imprisonment. 

2006 – Justice Action assisted the successful High Court challenge to return the prisoner right to vote. JA asked to present the case for prisoners before the Senate Inquiry in 2006.

ICOPA – Justice Actionhosted the Eleventh International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA XI) in Tasmania. Later in the year a JA representative also travelled to London and met with the Howard League, the oldest penal reform group in the UK established in 1866, who agreed to host the 2008 Twelfth International Conference on Penal Abolition, which was attended by Justice Action as the only Australian representative.

2005 – There are approximately 9,000 prisoners in NSW gaols, a 40% increase over the past decade. Tomeet the demand the Department of Corrective Services continues to construct new facilities. (ABC, Four Corners)

2004 – Leaders of ethnic gangs controlling crime and street warfare from behind bars are rounded up into an isolation wing of Parklea Gaol. One other leader is sent to the Supermax. (ABC, Four Corners)

2004 – Justice Action took up a position as a foundation member on the Justice Health Consumer Group, a group set up by Justice Health as required by the NSW Health Department, and tasked with monitoring the health of all NSW prisoners.

2003 – In conjunction with TAFE, Justice Action created a community mentoring course with special modules to address the needs of those in conflict with the law. The 22 graduates were mainly ex-prisoners.

2002 – ‘Standard minimum terms’ are introduced for a range of serious offences. These sentences can be reduced or increased by a range of mitigating or aggravating circumstances under the common law, thus retaining judicial discretion. (ABC, Four Corners)

§ 2001 – ‘Ethnic clustering’, dividing inmates according to race, is introduced at Goulburn Gaol to make prisoners easier to control. Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, Arabic and European prisoners are separated, with no contact between groups allowed (ABC, Four Corners).

2001 – The High Risk Management Unit (HRMU, also referred to by inmates as HARM-U) opened at Goulburn Correctional Centre, and was Australia’s first Supermax prison at a cost of $20 million. Construction of the Goulburn Correctional Centre begun in 1880 in the Southern Highlands of NSW and was completed in 1894. The facility has also been known as the Goulburn Training Centre (1949-1950), Goulburn Reformatory and Goulburn Gaol (Ramsland 2011).

Currently the facility is classified as maximum security for males. The facility is the most secure prison within the NSW correctional system, and the inmates are subject to very strict daily regimes, and under intense scrutiny by security. Goulburn HRMU has received similar complaints from prisoners as were made about the now closed Katingal at Long Bay, which was dubbed the ‘electronic zoo’. These complaints include the lack of natural light and fresh air; no access to legal books; the use of isolation and solitary confinement as punishment; limited and enclosed exercise; mutilation and harsh treatment. The NSW Ombudsman’s report in 2008 explained that there is ‘no doubt… that the HRMU does not provide a therapeutic environment for these inmates’ (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

October – A conference hears that mentally ill prisoners are locked in their cells at Long Bay prison for up to 23 hours a day and that 800 inmates require medical treatment to deal with acute mental illness, but only 90 beds are available at Long Bay’s hospital wing. (ABC, Four Corners)

‘Ethnic clustering’ is strongly criticised in an internal Corrective Services report which finds the practice increases tension and encourages gang formation. A crackdown begins on gangs, with 100 inmates identified as having gang affiliations. An internal report shows they are responsible for drug-running, prostitution, gambling rackets, standover tactics and theft. (ABC, Four Corners)

2001 – Justice Action initiated the Stop the Women’s Jail Campaign after the government rejects the 126 submissions against the prison and only the Corrective Services submissions for it. Employed Kerry Nettle (later Senator) as the Coordinator.


2000 – A NSW parliamentary committee finds that the number of women being jailed has grown alarmingly. The committee report details a 40% increase in the female prisoner population since 1994; with a 14% increase of Aboriginal women in custody. Female prisons are rife with drug addiction, suicide and mental illness. (ABC, Four Corners)

Privacy of human genetic material – As the only group invited to make an oral presentation to the Senate Inquiry into the Crimes (Forensic Procedures) Act in December 2000, Justice Action defended the privacy of human genetic material against the top four experts from the Attorney-General’s Department and the Federal Police.

1999 – An inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into Corrective Services finds officers developed improper relationships with inmates by accepting bribes to tamper with prison documents. (ABC, Four Corners)

Drug questionnaire – Justice Action distributed the only questionnaire to prisoners during the NSW Drug Summit 1999 when six MP crossbenchers wrote, ‘The participation of Justice Action is absolutely crucial to deliberations at the Summit’.

The Prisoners Union – Justice Action facilitated the creation of the Australian Prisoners Union (APU). The APU was launched Saturday 17 July at the Clubhouse, Jubilee Park Oval, Glebe, NSW. It was created to be an independent union of prisoners and paroled prisoner to represent and advance the interests of prisoners and paroled prisoners, campaigning on a range of prison issues including: lack of legal aid; communication with the community including media; re-introduction of remissions; payment of proper employment entitlements for prisoners undertaking work whilst incarcerated; freedom of association for prisoners; visiting rights including contact visits; invasive searches of visitors; entitlement to computers; prisoner control of prisoners’ services, including post-release services; as well as improved education and rehabilitation services.

Its founding statement says: “Fundamental human rights do not end at the prison gate. Society must acknowledge that prisoners are members of our communities, who will return to those communities after incarceration.”

1997 – The 900-bed Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre opens at Silverwater, Australia’s largest correctional centre. (ABC, Four Corners)

Right to vote – Justice Action defended the prisoners’ right to vote nationally, giving the only oral evidence at the Senate Inquiry.

Criminal Justice Activists – Justice Action co-hosted the first national conference of community-based Criminal Justice Activists and forced the exposure and reform of the corrupt police practice of concocting confessions called the police ‘verbal’.

A typical cell at Silverwater

Source: SMH –

1996 – Justice Action initiated ex-prisoner Richard Lynott’s case against the NSW government for negligence due to its failure to supply clean needles and syringes in prison, later causing his death.

Mulawa Project – Justice Action coordinated the Justice Action Mulawa Project, which saw volunteer law students and solicitors visiting Mulawa Correctional Centre weekly, and the circulation of plain English legal/prison issue booklets into Mulawa.

KM1 herbal trial – In conjunction with Pride, Justice Action succeeded in having the KM1 herbal trial available for HIV+ prisoners.

Visits – Justice Action with the support of Corrective Services NSW conducted a survey of Long Bay visitors for one month, surveying and compiling the responses over 4000 visitors, these were followed by102 personal responses to JA after the initial survey.Initiated recommendations made in the Prison Visitors Survey Report and worked with Corrective Services to institute changes.

Acknowledgement – Justice Action was acknowledged in NSW Legislative Assembly by Jeremy Kinross as ‘consistently standing for the truth’. (NSW Legislative Assembly 20.6.96).

1995 – Justice Actionlobbied for the Wood Royal Commission and brought evidence on numerous issues including wrongful convictions, working with the Wrongful Convictions Group established within Legal Aid NSW. JA worked alongside Legal Aid to collate these complaints against Police officers proven to be corrupt.

Prisoner health  Working with other groups, Justice Action formed the community policy about blood-borne communicable diseases in prisons, pressuring the government for immediate availability of condoms, clean syringes and dental dams.

Prison Watch – Justice Action held the position as Australian Coordinator for International Prison Watch, an international penal watch group based in France reporting annually on the human rights situations of prisoners globally.

1994 – The Australian Institute of Criminology reports a 40% increase in deaths in custody over the past two years. In all, 72 people died in custody in 1992/93 compared with 57 and 58 in the two previous years. (ABC, Four Corners)

1994 Junee Correctional Centre – The Junee Correctional Centre was opened as a medium/minimum security for males in 1994, and was the first correctional centre facility in NSW to be privately run. The GEO Group Inc designed, constructed and currently (2011) manages the prison under a single contractual arrangement with the NSW Department of Corrective Services (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

The front gates at Junee Correctional Centre

Source: State Library of NSW –

1994 – Researchers Ken McCullagh and Trish Woods, The University of Wollongong, Woolyungah Indigenous Centre work to develop the “RAVEN” project and for the design, implementation and curation of an Aboriginal inmate cultural studies program at Goulburn Correctional Centre. An exhibition of the inmates work was curated by Ken McCullagh and was a success both fiancially and spiritually for all involved.

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Inmates were introduced to computers which helped them improve their art skills. This was achieved through painting a mural covering the walls and ceiling of the Aboriginal recreation room. At the same time, inmates improve their painting techniques and organised an exhibition at the University of Wollongong. The proceeds from the sales were distributed to firstly the Department of Corrective Service who demanded the cost of art material recouped then to the families of the immates. The course was so msuccessful in getting the inmate working together to improve their condition and opportunities rather than fighting each other (which corrective services prefer) that Correctives Services subsequently reallocated the Goulburn inmates to other facilities and painted over the inmates mural, erasing it from history.

 1993 – NSW Prisons Minister Michael Yabsley says that rape is ‘inevitable’ in prison and that fear of rape might be a useful ‘deterrent factor’ to those thinking of offending (ABC, Four Corners).

1991 – The final report on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody makes more than 300 recommendations. The report finds that the disproportionate rate at which Aboriginal people are arrested and imprisoned in Australia is the principal explanation for their deaths. The Commonwealth says it will spend $400 million over five years to implement the recommendations. Critics subsequently claim that implementation has been slow and piecemeal. (ABC, Four Corners)

1990 – Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland becomes Australia’s first private prison (O’Toole 2006).

Exercise yard at Boggo Road Prison, Queensland, 1989



1987 – The Minister for Corrective Services, Rex Jackson, is convicted of conspiracy in relation to the early licence release scheme. Remissions are subsequently abolished. (ABC, Four Corners)

October 1987 – The Hawke Federal ALP Government announces a Royal Commission to investigate the deaths of 99 Aborigines in police and prison custody over a period of nine years. (ABC, Four Corners)

1985 – A task force finds 78% of women in gaol are addicted to alcohol or drugs, especially heroin. (ABC, Four Corners)

1983  Remissions programs are established in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. These programs were largely removed in the 1990s and replaced in NSW by ‘Truth-in-Sentencing’.

Rex Jackson –Allegations surface that the NSW Minister for Corrective Services, Rex Jackson, had accepted payments in return for granting early release to certain prisoners. (ABC, Four Corners)

1980 – Prison officers become frustrated at the swift pace and direction of the changes to penal administration – particularly on issues relating to prisoner rights – and react with a series of strikes. The Wran Government backs down. (ABC, Four Corners)

1979 – Goulburn Gaol inmates allege beatings by prison officers. A magistrate’s inquiry finds evidence of assault by four officers, but no criminal charges are laid. (ABC, Four Corners)

Prisoners Legal Service – Justice Action was part of the initiating committee for the NSW Prisoners Legal Service following the Nagle Royal Commission.

Prisoners Union Liaison (P.U.L) – P.U.L was established by trade unions and prisoners at Parramatta Gaol in 1979, and was an important development of cooperation between the two groups. The main purpose changed from rights to employment post-release, and to a health and safety in following years.

October 1979 – A peaceful sitdown protest is held by inmates at Parramatta Gaol after the Wran Government’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against prison officers implicated in the Bathurst riots. (ABC, Four Corners)

Bones found in Parramatta Gaol escape tunnel, Dept. of Corrective Services, 12th floor, Goodsell Building, Sydney 1979.

Source: State Library of New South Wales

1978 – Nagle Report- The report by Royal Commissioner Nagle recommends more than 250 sweeping changes to the penal system. Most are implemented. He finds that the NSW Department of Corrective Services and ministers of both major parties had unofficially sanctioned the systematic brutalisation of prisoners at Grafton Gaol. (ABC, Four Corners)

The Wran Labor government begins reform. A new corrective services commission is established under chairman Dr Tony Vinson.

Justice Nagle condemns Katingal as an expensive ‘electronic zoo’. Recommendations from the Nagle report result in the closure of Katingal Gaol after only three years of operation.

‘Katingal became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the state’s prisons, a focus of public protest by an unlikely alliance of lawyers, journalists and unions.’ ABC Hindsight, 13 October, 2002. (ABC, Four Corners)

Prisoners Action Group (PAG) – hosted the defence of those accused of the Hilton Hotel bombing and employed the coordinator of the successful Anderson, Dunn and Alister campaign.

After the Nagle Royal Commission exposures and government inaction, Justice Action runs a private prosecution against 10 Grafton and Bathurst prison officers and a doctor for four months working with law students and thirty-two prisoner witnesses.

Chips Mackinolty Poster supporting the closure of Katingal

Source: State Library of NSW –

1976 – Prisoners Action Group (PAG) worked with Women Behind Bars (WBB) to successfully change the law on provocation in domestic violence murder cases, with the focus on the Bruce and Violet Roberts Blockade.

1975 – Women Behind Bars was formed in 1975 after a pregnant woman prisoner, Michelle House, was said to be kneed in the stomach by a female prison officer at Mulawa women’s prison in Sydney. WBB focused on the specific issues confronting women in prison, primarily concerning health and inadequate medical facilities.

Katingal – Katingal was designed to replace the intractable section at Grafton Gaol. Plans were devised in 1968, with first inmate occupants in late 1975 (Ramsland 1996). It was designed to house terrorists as well as problematic prisoners who had been identified as difficult offenders within the NSW prison system. It was dubbed as an ‘electronic zoo’ by inmates due to its electronically controlled confinement with artificial lights and air, depriving inmates from almost all contact with the outside world. ‘Katingal’ is an Aboriginal word meaning separation from social control (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

‘Katingal Gaol, designed exclusively for violent prisoners, opens. There is no natural light in the cells, all the doors are electronically operated, food is passed through the hatch and prisoners are allowed no direct contact with prison officers. It costs $15m and is well over budget.’ (ABC, Four Corners)

The facility became the focus of much, mainly critical, media attention, and was heavily criticised by Justice Nagle in the Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons (1978), who recommended its immediate closure. On 17 March 1989 Michael Yabsley announced that Katingal would be re-opened as a correctional facility. When it was realised that the redevelopment of the site would cost double the $8 million allocated, plans were put on hold until a feasibility study was completed on the entire Long Bay prison complex. The re-opening of Katingal was never raised thereafter (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

Maximum Security at Katingal Gaol

Source: State Library of NSW

1974 – Major disturbances in Bathurst gaol in 1974 saw the complete destruction of the prison by fire. This followed five separate attempts to burn down the facility since December 1966 (Ramsland 1996). Nagle (1978) drew significant attention to the institutionalised brutality and poor conditions that had been endured by prisoners at the facility throughout this period. Today the facility is a minimum to medium facility for both males

February 1974 – There is a second, larger riot at Bathurst Gaol. Petrol bombs are thrown about the prison complex and officers fire on inmates. The gaol is gutted by fire and costs $10 million to rebuild. (ABC, Four Corners)

1973 – Periodic detention is introduced in NSW.

Prisoners Action Group established: The Prisoners Action Group (PAG) was established in 1973 (as a splinter of the Penal Reform Council) and was concerned with activism and the abolition of the prison institution. It is a very radical and dynamic group advocating for prisoner rights through a number of different ways such as film-making, publications and demonstrations.

1971 – ‘The Bathurst Batterings’ was published in 1971 as a result of an incident that occurred in Bathurst Gaol on October 1970. As a consequence of the document the Penal Reform Council was formed in 1971 and aimed at sparking reform in the prison system and to provide legal assistance to prisoners.

1970 – Bathurst gaol is notorious for the major disturbances which occur in 1970 and 1974, which substantially contributed to the commissioning of the Nagle Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons (1978). A major riot erupts at the 19th century Bathurst Gaol, signalling deficiencies. Prisoners spend 18 hours a day in their cells and as there is no glass in the windows the bedding is often soaked by rain. Sewerage creates health problems as lavatories regularly overflow and cisterns jam. After the riot, some prison officers participate in a systematic flogging of prisoners. (ABC, Four Corners)

Bathurst Gaol

Source: State Library of Victoria

1970s – Surge in Prisoner-led activism: This decade saw an unprecedented alliance between prisoners and those advocating reform from the outside, including the Council for Civil Liberties, the Penal Reform Council, and various lawyers and academics who worked to publicise the many allegations of brutality at Grafton and Bathurst in particular, which were later confirmed by Nagle (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

This decade also saw the development of a number of prisoner activist organisations such as:

Parramatta Resurgents Group

Despite some members of this group being regarded by Corrective Services NSW as the ‘most dangerous’ prisoners in the state, they engaged in sophisticated debates and were well aware of current political issues. In 1979 the Group ran a number of well-organised seminars, which was open to the public and academics and explored the experiences of prisoners. The Group also published a magazine, Contact, which had 34 issues before being halted due to security and censorship concerns

Parramatta Recidivist Group (P.R.G)

This group provided assistance to new prisoners to help their transition into prison life through facilitating acceptance of the harsh reality of prisons, through counselling and other programs.

Prisoners Legal Cooperative (P.L.C)

The P.L.C aimed to protect and promote prisoners’ and ex-prisoners‘ rights, through campaigning for their own Prisoners’ Charter of Rights. The Charter focused on mainly political and legal rights, but also included social and cultural rights such as marriage and educational rights. The Charter applied to all prisoners in Australia and had some tangible success, however it remains unclear as to how far reaching their influence was.

1969 – The Department of Prisons was renamed the Department of Corrective Services, reflecting a belief in ability of prison to reform. (Cullen, Dowding and Griffin 1988:16 in

1968 – The Katingal project proposes to house six categories of violent prisoners, including top protection cases, at Long Bay in special cells devoid of light and without the programs or privileges available to prisoners at other gaols. Katingal Gaol is built in secrecy.

Group of seated prisoners, State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, Sydney



Prisoner on knees scrubbing verandah floor, State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, Sydney



1951 – The NSW Probation service is started. In 1968, the Parole and Probation services were combined and placed under the Prisons department.

1950 – A classification committee is set up in NSW to match the prisoner to an institution and to devise a training program. The NSW Parole Board is established.

1946 – A report on prison reform finds overcrowding at Long Bay. It recommends that sewerage replace pan systems in major gaols and that prisoners should have two more hours each day out of their cells. (ABC, Four Corners)

1945 – Increasing tensions in the state’s prisons and a number of serious assaults on prison officers lead to Grafton Gaol being used to house the most intractable prisoners. The penal methods at Grafton over the next 33 years are described as a ‘regime of terror’, ‘brutal, savage and sometimes sadistic’. This period is labelled as ‘one of the most sordid and shameful episodes in NSW penal history’. (ABC, Four Corners)

‘It became abundantly clear during the Commission’s hearings that the arduous duties required of [Grafton’s prison] officers largely consisted of inflicting brutal, savage, and sometimes sadistic physical violence on the hapless group of intractables who were sent to Grafton.’ Extract, Nagle Report, p.134.

1943-44 – Royal Commission begins looking at operations of Hobart Gaol.

1942 –TheGrafton Correctional Centre was opened in 1892 (Ramsland 1996)

The intractable section within Grafton began in 1942. It was felt that specialised treatment would put an end to the deviance and delinquent behaviour of the system’s most hardened criminals (Ramsland 1996). Throughout this period, prisoners received brutal treatment by prison officers, including a ‘reception biff’ on arrival to the facility. The inhumane conditions within the intractable section at Grafton Gaol later came under the scrutiny of Justice Nagle in the Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons (1978). Today the facility is used as a minimum to medium security facility, housing both males and females. The facility is used to accommodate sentenced offenders and as a reception prison for northern NSW (Australian Prisons Project 2011).

1925 – Prisoners serving two or more years are allowed writing materials in their cells. (ABC, Four Corners)

Kathleen Ward, photographed on14 May 1925 at the State reformatory for women, Long Bay

1921 – The principle of the penal diet – food given according to the amount of work performed that day – is abandoned. Instead bonus payments are introduced for work beyond the allotted task. (ABC, Four Corners)

1920 – Bathing is allowed each working day instead of twice weekly. Calling at half-hourly intervals by night guards is abandoned. Lights in cells are allowed. (ABC, Four Corners)

1918 – Reading of newspapers is allowed but controversial articles are cut out to prevent any difference of opinion which could lead to disorder. (ABC, Four Corners)

1917 – Leg-ironing of prisoners in transit is stopped. Prisoners at Emu Plains and Tuncurry are allowed to play cricket and football and bathe in the river or surf. (ABC, Four Corners)

1913 – The first prison camp, an afforestation camp, is established at Tuncurry in NSW. In 1914 another is constructed at Emu Plains, with further camps constructed between 1927-31 at Brookfield, Mannus, Glen Innes and Oberon. Camps were also opened in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland (O’Toole 2006).



1909 – A separate prison for women is constructed at Long Bay. (ABC, Four Corners)

1908 – In his annual report for 1908, Frederick W. Neitenstein, Comptroller-General of Prisons observed: ‘… the Berrima Gaol has been closed, as the present system has no use for it. At one time it was amongst the principal penal establishments, as was primarily for punitive treatment of refractory and turbulent prisoners. To be liable to be sent to Berrima for “coercion” was a terrifying idea, and the methods employed – only a few years ago – at that place were severe indeed. The principal measures of “coercion,” apart from flogging as a last resource, consisted of solitary confinement, dark cells, and various forms of ironing. Of these, prolonged detention in dark cells was the most drastic punishment. On entering into office, I made careful inquiry into this matter, and found that individuals were punished over and over again without checking offences or bringing better conduct. On my recommendation, therefore, all of these things were abolished, and one result has been that outbreaks and organised disturbances have entirely ceased, and serious misconduct has become a thing of the past. (Report of the Comptroller-General of Prisons, New South Wales for the year 1908, p. 3 in NSW Parliamentary Papers 1909 vol 4 p. 47) Berrima Gaol was deproclaimed in a proclamation made on August 14, 1909. (14)

1903 Public Works Prison Trial Bay – The Comptroller-General of Prisons in the Report for 1903 observed as follows ‘For some years the prison authorities have viewed this place with disfavour… The lines laid down for the conduct of this establishment were not in harmony with the general system, and the association which was unavoidable did not assist reform. Its abolition is a relief to the general policy of the Department, and is also a gain to economical working’. (Prisons report for 1903, A. R. 1904, v.1, p. 697.)

Construction of the Breakwater at Trial Bay


Pentridge Prison Front Wall 1900

Source: photos Australia

1898 – Royal Commission into Western Australian penal system (O’Toole 2006).

1895  Captain F.W. Neitenstein is appointed chief administrator of NSW prisons and he brings about reforms that lead to a halt on the imprisonment of children and the placement of mentally disturbed people in prisons. (ABC, Four Corners)

1880-1890 – Significant period of construction and development of prisons in NSW, Northern Territory and Queensland (O’Toole 2006).

Prison in NT (we think Fannie Bay)


1878 – In 1878, a Royal Commission Inquiry was conducted into the management and discipline at Berrima prison after allegations of cruelty. The inquiry reported that prisoners had been subjected to punishments such as dark cells and gagging on repeated occasions. (Royal Commission Inquiry Appointed 2 July 1878 to Inquire Into and Report Upon the General Management and Discipline of the Gaol at Berrima. In Votes and Proceedings 1878-79 vol.3 p.1035.) One cell was used in the earlier years for spreadeagling prisoners. Two rings were placed in the wall four feet six inches from the ground and the prisoner to be punished had his arms handcuffed to the rings. Flogging was never known in the gaol. (Jervis, J. A. History of the Berrima District p.34).

1868 – Transportation of convicts from United Kingdom to Western Australia officially ends (O’Toole 2006).

Unidentified Tall Ship near Cape York


1867 – Administrative responsibility for NSW prisons moves from the office of the Sheriff to the office of the Inspector General of Prisons.

From 1867, prisoners were classified under the British Crofton system according to the legal character of the offences and the length of the sentences they had been given. The Philadelphia system in the United States and the Pentonville Model system in England were also influential. There were three distinct divisions of Darlinghurst inmates – A, B and C. The A classification was for serious crimes and dangerous, intractable prisoners, while the C classification indicated those who had committed minor crimes or misdemeanours, such as inebriates, non-violent lunatics, debtors and others considered easy to control. The B classification fitted in between these two classifications.

In New South Wales, a solitary confinement regime for prisoners was organised from the Philadelphia system for up to nine months depending on the length of the sentence. The prisoner worked, ate and slept in his cell and took exercise by himself. The emphasis was on solitary and sorrowful repentance. The subduing state of solitude would lead, it was believed, to the maintenance of perfect order in the prison. Drawing from the convict era, colonial administrators chose to use physical punishment, by flogging, leg irons, solitary confinement and the gallows, believing it to have a disciplinary effect. Such punishments were gradually watered down. Underlying the penal system was the high Victorian notion of the possibilities of moral, social and spiritual reform of prisoners.

1866 Berrima – Until 1866 the supervision at Berrima was similar to that in any other prison until the treatment known as the ‘silent system’ was introduced. The first nine months of a prisoner’s sentence was passed in silence, when he was not permitted to speak to anyone, not even a warden except in the way of business. All prisoners sentenced to five years or more served one-twelfth of their term in Berrima.

The Cells at Berrima Gaol

Source:State library of Victoria –

1865 – In Queensland, the administrative responsibility for prisoners transfers from the military to the police.

1859 – In accordance with the Prisons Regulation Act, 1840 a Public Gaol was ordered to be established at Braidwood. This proclamation, dated 11 July, 1859 heralded a program of prison construction intended to replace temporary structures in country areas and expand metropolitan gaols. However, as a result of controversy generated by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper about substandard cell design within prisons, this government ordered the program to be reviewed.

The Colonial Architect was ordered to present revised plans and cost estimates in keeping with the new standards. Three different classes of gaols were planned, according to the size required, each class built to a standard design and price, being between £2,000 and £3,000. The cost quoted for the erecting the new gaol at Braidwood was £2 000. The gaol at Braidwood, designed to contain twelve prisoners, was completed over-budget at £2,339.

1856 – Convicts are no longer sent to Norfolk Island.

Remains of the infamous Norfolk Island Treadmill, a form of punishment inflicted on prisoners

Source: NLA –{pi:nla.pic*}&offset=1&max=1


1854 – Eureka Stockade.

1849 – An inquiry into the administration of Darlinghurst Gaol finds ‘debauchery, drunkenness and irregularity of every kind’ and the officers involved are dismissed. (ABC, Four Corners)

DarlinghurstGaol and Court House, Sydney, 1870

1847 – The first gaol for male prisoners is built in Queensland.

1845 – Convict transportation to Van Diemen’s land ends.

1840s-1860s – An anti-transportation campaign was conducted during which Victoria and South Australia, having never received any convicts, loudly proclaimed they were convict-free. Support for the movement was achieved through scare tactics which threatened the risk of contamination by association and suggested persons who interacted with the ‘degraded felon’ would lose their social status. As a result, Victoria and South Australia created legislation to ban Van Diemen people from entering their shores. John West, the prominent figure in the anti-transportation movement, published two propaganda works called the Examiner and History, of which the latter was a primary source used by historians up until the late 20th century. The flag of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League Flag was the first design to include the Southern Cross. It is likely to have subsequently influenced the Australian, New Zealand and Victorian flags.

The primary move to abolish transportation was driven by accusations of homosexuality among the prisoner community. These unfounded stories led to public hysteria and in turn a spike in committals. It became impossible for people to support transportation. Even convicts began to believe the hype, lacking the confidence to debate the accusations.

Nicholas Bayley, a pastoralist, argued that through his 15 year experience with prisoners, he had the opinion that the stories were largely exaggerated if not false altogether. In fact, he argued that prisoners showed more gratitude for indulgences and their morality was equal to many immigrants he had met.

Ultimately, the success of the anti-transportation movement allowed the middle-class to rid themselves of the convict. A change of hands occurred between the middle-class and the working class, future generations of prisoners discovered they no longer had a place in middle-class, and thus stayed put in the working class. Noteworthy is the fact that not many who supported the anti-transportation movement realised that the fears of pollution, contamination and contagion were rooted in a fear of homosexuality. Unfortunately, the preceding six decades of Australia’s convict history was readily forgotten.

1840 – Transportation of convicts to NSW ends.

1839 – Berrima Correctional Complex is the oldest operating gaol in Australia. The facility was completed in October 1839 (Ramsland 1996), and was based on a radical design which was favoured in that period. Throughout the 19th century, Berrima Gaol carried a feeling of foreboding, with the most hardened criminals in the system sent there throughout that era. It was considered the ‘Siberia’ of the NSW prison system, where’sensory deprivation and corporal punishment could be expected in an atmosphere of penal totalitarianism’ (Ramsland 1996)

1838 – First gaol established in Adelaide, South Australia.

Adelaide Gaol

Source: Gill, Samuel Thomas, 1818-1880.drawing : sepia wash ; 9.7 x 13 cm.)

1838 – The policy of assignment, whereby convicts were assigned (effectively hired out) to private settlers for little to no pay at all (criticised as a system akin to slavery), ends in 1838.

1836 – First gaol established in Melbourne, Victoria.

1835  A parliamentary committee recommends the building of new prisons at Sydney and Parramatta. It is proposed that prisoners be physically isolated from one another and banned from communicating with each other. (ABC, Four Corners)

Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains 1833


1830 – First system of probation established in Van Diemen’s Land. Port Arthur penal settlement established in Tasmania (O’Toole 2006).

Port Arthur

Source: Etablissement penitentiaire de Port Arthur, Terre de VanDiemen [picture]. 1854

1829 – Queensland’s first gaol – a ‘female factory’ – is built in Queen Street, Brisbane (O’Toole 2006).

1829 – Queensland’s first Female Factory

Source: State Library of Queensland, no.153725 –

1827 – Campbelltown Gaol was built in 1827. Thomas Hammond (a local publican) was awarded a contract to convert Cooper’s public house into a courthouse and gaol in November 1826. By 1833 the gaol was very overcrowded and in great need of upgrading. No improvements were made and the magistrates complained again in 1837. The authorities decided that a gaol in Campbelltown was unnecessary and a police office with cells would be sufficient. The gaol closed at the end of 1843, due to insufficient funds.

1825 – Norfolk Island begins to receive the ‘worst’ convicts from NSW and Van Diemen’s Land (O’Toole 2006).

Norfolk Island

Source:National Library of Australia –

1824 – The office of the Sheriff replaces the Provost Marshal in managing the colony’s prisoners (O’Toole 2006).

1821 – Governor Macquarie establishes the Female Factory at Parramatta for unassigned female convicts and imperial (local) female prisoners (O’Toole 2006). Women confined in female factories went through a strictly observed rehabilitation process that involved domestic duties and Bible readings. Female factories also served as places where marriage or domestic work arrangements for the women could be brokered by free settlers (O’Toole 2006).

Parramatta Female Factory, circa 1826

Source: Augustus Earle (1793-1838). Female Penitentiary or Factory, Parramatta [1826?]. Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK12/47.)National Library of Australia

1820 – Barracks are built in Sydney to house convicts.Until other accommodation was built prisoners lived in their own homes where they developed private lives and private possessions. They operated businesses in their homes. Their household provided board and lodgings and in many cases, employment, for later convict arrivals (Smith 2010).

1820 Barracks in Sydney

Source:Caserne à Sydney [Barracks in Sydney] 1835

(intaglio engraving, printed in black ink, from one steel plate printed image 9.2 h x 11.8 w cm)

1800s-1830s: Public executions took place as the ultimate punishment for the same range of crimes as in England. Executions for prisoners incarcerated in Parramatta Gaol were conducted at Castle Hill. Last minute reprieves occurred, but there were also gruesome spectacles to please the Sydney and Castle Hill crowds.

A government jail gang, Sydney

Source: Augustus Earle (1793-1838), 1830, print: lithograph.) Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia1:nla.pic-an6065451.

1800 – The demand for labour grows and a system of ‘assigned service’ develops where convicts are assigned to private masters.


Between 1788 and 1868 (when transportation of prisoners to all colonies had ceased) approximately 138,000 men and 25,000 women had been transported to Australia (Smith 2010).

By contemporary standards the majority of convicts sent to Australia had only committed trivial offences (often minor property offences), but regardless were usually Australia-bound having been sentenced to either a seven-year, fourteen-year, or life sentence of transportation and labour. As late as 1837 the official list of offences for which sentences of transportation might be allocated contained over two hundred items (Scott 1916, Part 2).

The draconian nature of the criminal code created an environment where convicts felt that there was a difference between being a ‘law-abiding’ citizen and a ‘decent human being’ (Convict Creations 2010), stemming from the sense of illegitimacy surrounding transportation sentences given to many convicts convicted of poverty crimes in England.

This perspective is reflected in verses of convict poetry and song such as:

‘The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.’

And song verses like

‘He bade the judge good morning

And he told him to beware,

That he’d never rob a needy man

Or one who acted square,

But a judge who’d rob a mother

Of her one and only joy

Sure, he must be a worse outlaw than

The wild colonial boy.’

1797 – The first gaols (made of logs) constructed in NSW at George Street in Sydney and at Parramatta were completed in June 1797. Each was fitted with 22 cells, but both were burnt down in the same year by unknown arsonists, and then replaced by the more substantial sandstone dormitory buildings (O’Toole 2006).

A fleet of transports under convoy

Source:(London : Printed for & sold by Carrington Bowles, Published as the Act directs 9 Novr. 1781. 1 print : mezzotint, hand col. ; sheet 36 x 25.5 cm.)

1788-1797 ‘The whole of NSW a prison’ – Convicts/prisoners were housed in the community, initially in tents until barracks were built in 1820. Convicts were ‘working part of the day for the government and the rest of the day privately and [to] pay their rent.’ During this period ‘prisoners’ in Australia were overwhelmingly transported convicts rather than individuals convicted of an offence in Australia.


AIHW 2011. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2010. Cat. no. PHE 149. Canberra: AIHW. Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2010, 4517.0 – Prisoners in Australia, 2010, Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2011, 4512.0 – Corrective Services, Australia, Jun 2011, Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Australian Prison Project, 2011, ‘Section 2: Major Themes by Decade’ in Key moments in Penal Culture in NSW 1970 – present at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Convict Creations – Thinking Different, Australian History – The missing links, 2010, Available at URL: [Accessed: October 2011]

Corrective Services NSW website, History of NSW Corrections, 2011, Available at URL: [Accessed: October 2011].

Grabosky P. N., Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989, ‘Chapter 2: The abuse of prisoners in New South Wales 1943-76’ in Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector , Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. Select Committee on the Increase in Prisoner Population. Final Report / Select Committee on the Increase in Prisoner Population. [Sydney, N.S.W.] :The Committee, 2001; (Parliamentary paper ; no. 924), Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011]

O’Toole, S., 2006, The History of Australian Corrections, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Ramsland, J., Prisons to 1920, 2011, Available at URL: [Accessed: October 2011]

Scott, E., Chapter 5 ‘The Convict System’ in A Short History of Australia, 1916, Available at URL: [Accessed: October 2011].

Smith, B., 2008, Australia’s Birthstain: The startling legacy of the convict era, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Smith, B., Out of Sight, 2009, Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Smith, B, In a class of our own, 2010, Available at URL: [Accessed October 2011].

Vicki Lee Roach v Electoral Commissioner and Commonwealth of Australia, 30 August 2007, High Court of Australia.

Zdenkowski, G., and Brown, D., 1982, The Prison Struggle: Changing Australia’s Penal System, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic.

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