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History of NSW Corrections

"We left our country for our country's good"    

( Early NSW convict play)

Also visit the CSNSW Museum for information about the history of corrections in NSW.

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Earliest times - transportation

The American War of Independence, which ended in 1783, forced Britain to find ways of dealing with criminals other than transporting them to the United States.

The resulting overcrowding in English prisons pressured the British government in 1786 into deciding on the transportation of convicts to New South Wales.

It was hoped transportation would be a comparatively cheap method of punishment and would remove criminals permanently from England.

The government's instructions to the first governor of the new penal colony, Captain Arthur Phillip RN, were few and scrappy.

Initially, the convicts were housed in tents on one side of Sydney Cove and the marines guarding them on the other.

Until a barracks was built there were no quarters for convicts and often they had to find private lodging in the town.

Convicts worked part of the day for the government and were free for the rest to find work for pay and so earn the rent for their lodging.

As the demand for labour grew in the colony the system of assigned service developed. Convicts were assigned to masters and were entirely under their control.

Assigned service ended following a large influx of convicts after the Napoleonic wars. The system of assigned service was replaced by chain gangs in 1826.

By day the convicts worked in heavy chains, including a neck collar, and were punished on the spot for trivial offences.      

Transportation ends

In 1840 the British government ended transportation to New South Wales as it believed the colony had become too settled and civilised to be useful as a penal settlement.

Five years previously, in 1835, the NSW Legislative Council had appointed a committee to examine the problems of policing and escorting prisoners resulting from the rapid geographical expansion of the colony.

For example, the committee discovered that at Yass Plains the court was held in a blacksmith's shop because there was no courthouse, gaol or lock-up in the district. One witness told the committee :

"We secure prisoners by handcuffs and leg irons, and by fastening them to a post in a hut in which the constable is obliged to keep watch; but notwithstanding all these precautions, they sometimes manage to escape."

The committee was critical of conditions at both Sydney gaol (now the site of the Regent Hotel in George Street) and Parramatta gaol. It strongly recommended the building of new prisons at both Sydney and Parramatta.

The report of the committee also marked the introduction in NSW of the systems of the isolation of prisoners from one another and a total ban on communication between them. The systems, known as the Silent System and the Separate System, were widely practised in England and parts of the United States.

It was believed the complete isolation of prisoners would prevent "the spread of criminal tendencies by association and communication" and thus aid prison management and the reform of prisoners. Official opinion in England favoured the separate system, although the debate about its effectiveness lasted into the 20th century.       

British influence

The NSW Prisons Act 1840 had to make provision for the transitionary period following the end of transportation.

Strict new regulations issued in 1867 under this Act were influenced by the British Prisons Act 1865, which resulted from public demand for more severe measures following an increase in street violence in England in the early 1860s.

The aim of the British Act was deterrence through fear. The House of Lords, the upper house in the British Parliament, used the phrase "hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed." The regulations introduced in NSW in 1867 were designed to put into effect, in the spirit of severity characteristic of the British Act of 1865, the blend of the separate and silent systems which evolved in British prisons.

Under the new regulations all prisoners served one-twelfth or 12 months (whichever was the lesser) of their sentences in the separate system.​

The system examined

During this period there were three inquiries into various aspects of NSW prisons. The first was a parliamentary committee of inquiry in 1849 into the administration of Darlinghurst gaol. The committee found:

"debauchery, drunkenness and irregularity of every kind."

The committee recommended the immediate dismissal of the Principal gaoler, the Matron, the Dispenser and the Principal Turnkey.

It urged that an entirely new set of officers and attendants should be appointed to Darlinghurst.

In 1861 the Legislative Council appointed a Select Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Parkes, later NSW Premier, to inquire into prisons in Sydney and Cumberland.

Gaols at Cockatoo Island, Darlinghurst, Parramatta and Penrith were examined. The committee described the buildings and living conditions at Cockatoo Island as "of a most deplorable description." A number of criticisms were made of the administration of Darlinghurst.

The committee emphasised the need for an effective system of inspection of the institutions.

Allegations of cruel treatment at Berrima gaol led to a Royal Commission into the gaol in 1878.

In 1865 the Government had decided to make Berrima a model prison "with a view to introducing the separate treatment system." Unmanageable prisoners from other prisons were sent there for "coercion."

The two Berrima gaol practices mainly complained about for their cruelty were spreadeagling and the gag.

The Royal Commission concluded :

"It must be admitted that the chaining of a man to the walls of a cell is a barbarous means of punishment, which should not be tolerated as a means of punishment, and there should be no necessity for resorting to it as a method of restraint."

"We desire to see no further instance of the chaining of a prisoner to the walls of his cell and we beg to recommend that the ring-bolts be removed."

The Commission also recommended strict limitations on the use of the gag, which was an instrument designed to temporarily silence difficult prisoners.

Despite the harsh methods and emphasis on severity in this era, there was one experiment of note in NSW. This was the construction of an experimental prison at Trial Bay, near Kempsey, on the Mid North Coast.

The prison was designed to provide useful work and a certain amount of freedom for prisoners who were fit, well-behaved and within seven years of the end of their sentences.

The prisoners were paid wages and their wives and families were allowed to visit them. They were engaged in the construction of a breakwall designed to provide a harbour of safe refuge for ships on the coastal route. The experiment was later abandoned.

During the second half of the 19th century the NSW prison system, in most respects, closely followed the trends and practices of the British system.

An important development in the British system was the appointment by the British government in 1894 of a committee of inquiry into prisons under the chairmanship of Herbert Gladstone, the Under Secretary of State.

The findings of the Gladstone Committee were to have important repercussions for NSW prisons in the early years of this century.

The committee concluded that conditions of imprisonment at that time did not lead to any moral reform or change in behaviour.

On the contrary, it reduced the prisoner's capacity to cope with the demands of life upon release from prison.

The committee recommended that the British system should be more flexible, adaptable to individual conditions and needs, aimed at reform and at turning prisoners out of prison better, physically and mentally, than when they went in.

The committee also recommended the abolition of servile and punitive labour, and a change in emphasis towards productive and rehabilitative labour.

The committee dismissed the idea that cellular isolation had any reforming effects.

Frederick Neitenstein

In 1895 Captain Frederick Neitenstein, a seaman who had been in charge of two training ships for truant and delinquent boys, was appointed chief administrator of NSW prisons. Significantly, Neitenstein closely studied the report of the Gladstone Committee.

During the following 14 years while he was in charge of NSW prisons Neitenstein displayed an enlightened and humane attitude to the treatment of offenders.

He was particularly concerned about the practice of the time of placing the mentally disturbed in prisons for treatment, in addition to drunks and vagrants. Many of those gaoled for drunkenness in this period undoubtedly would now be treated in hospitals for the disease of alcoholism.

Neitenstein was also disturbed at the mass imprisonment of defaulters, first offenders and petty offenders as well as the sick, the infirm, the aged and even children.

He continually hammered the theme of  "unnecessary gaoling."

The main changes during Neitenstein's term of office were the grading and use of specialised functions for prisons, such as the use of Goulburn gaol for the confinement of first offenders, the concentration of prisons through the closing of many small gaols, the reduction of the separate system and the introduction of restricted association amongst prisoners.

He also pressed for the construction of a separate prison for women. His efforts resulted in the opening of the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay in 1909, the year he retired.

As a man of vision, Neitenstein also placed great emphasis on the need to help released prisoners. As a result of his concern, the Association for Aiding Discharged Persons was formed with branches in various parts of the State. Neitenstein also looked forward to the time when there would be a training college for correctional officers. In his time, elementary examinations were introduced to end the recruitment of illiterate officers.

Some collections of books were built up in prisons so that officers could inform themselves about ideas on crime and punishment.

Numerous other humane changes were made during Neitenstein's administration, including an end to the use of dark cells as a punishment, improvements in general hygiene, and a more varied diet for prisoners.

The impetus for reform which sprung from Neitenstein's changes continued after his retirement, the most significant development being the establishment of an afforestation camp at Tuncurry and the opening of a prison farm at Emu Plains in 1914.

The 20th century

The pace of reform was slowed by the nation's preoccupation with World War I, then the Great Depression and World War II.

Nevertheless, innovations, such as the lifting of restrictions on the use of library books and magazines, improvements in opportunities for education and a growing awareness of the influence of psychology, signalled an end to the general air of repression and coercion.

The impetus for reform gathered momentum again after World War II when Premier W J McKell appointed a committee to report on prisons. The committee made a number of recommendations on additional staffing and facilities, improved educational opportunities for prisoners, closer monitoring of prison diets, improvements in industries and in the treatment of mental defectives and inebriates.

In the following years action on these and other recommendations of the committee resulted in a gradual change for the better in general prison conditions.

The system continued to expand, with Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre (the start of the Silverwater complex) opening on 17 September 1969 (gazetted as the "Training and Detention Centre for Women, Silverwater").

Probation and Parole

The period from 1946 to 1976 witnessed the introduction of numerous changes and innovations, such as the foundation of the NSW Probation and Parole Service the work release scheme and weekend detention.

Bathurst Gaol was built in 1888

Bathurst Gaol was built in 1888.

Major disturbances - the Nagle Report

However, two major riots at Bathurst Gaol, in October 1970 and February 1974, signalled that there were serious deficiencies in the prison system.

As a result of the Bathurst riots and their aftermath the State Government set up a Royal Commission. Mr Justice Nagle of the NSW Supreme Court was appointed sole Royal Commissioner. The Royal Commission report was tabled in State Parliament on 4 April 1978. The Royal Commissioner made a total of 252 recommendations for sweeping changes to the penal system. Most of the recommendations were implemented.

The current thrust in the NSW correctional system is towards providing suitable alternatives to imprisonment, particularly for first and minor offenders.

In line with the Nagle Royal Commission recommendations, imprisonment is to be used only as a last resort.

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Parklea Prison (Parklea Correctional Centre) was opened in October 1983.

Since 1988 traffic defaulters may have their licences cancelled instead of being imprisoned, while other fine defaulters may pay their fines in small amounts over a long period, or carry out unpaid, supervised community work, or serve a sentence in a weekend detention centre.

In 1989 the government abolished remissions on prison sentences and passed legislation to enable the courts to set unalterable minimum terms of imprisonment.

The first privately-managed prison in NSW, Junee Correctional Centre, was opened in March 1993.

Wollongong Periodic Detention Centre was gazetted on 2 July 1993 and closed seven years later with the abolition of periodic detention.

In July 1997, the maximum security Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre was opened in the Sydney suburb of Silverwater The 900-bed centre becomes one of Australia's largest correctional centres.

In October 1997, the NSW Government introduced a new fine enforcement system where defaulters face losing their drivers licences or having their car registration cancelled. If this happens and fines remain unpaid, the Sheriffs Office can move to seize assets. As a result of this new scheme there are no fine defaulters in the NSW prison system.


Mid North Coast Correctional Centre

Mid-North Coast Correctional Centre

The Girrawaa Creative Work Centre, located at Bathurst Correctional Centre, in the state’s Central West, was opened in 1998. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studio was the first of its kind in Australia, and helps inmates continue practicing art after their release. The program encourages inmates to develop their art skills, build a portfolio and learn how to sell their works.

The 21st century

The first prison in Australia founded primarily for Aboriginal people was opened near Brewarrina in far western NSW in June 2000. Named Yetta Dhinnakkal ("right pathway" in the Nyemba language) the minimum security centre accommodated up to 70 young offenders on a 10,500 hectare property to keep them separated from older hardened prisoners and to teach them rural skills.

Other prisons and wings to open were:

  • The High Risk Management Centre (Supermax) was opened at Goulburn Correctional Complex in September 2001 as the first such facility in Australia, making it the highest security prison in Australia.  
  • Dillwynia Correctional Centre, which opened within the John Morony Correctional Complex at Windsor in 2003.

Dillwynia Correctional Centre

Dillwynia Correctional Centre

  • Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, a 500-bed facility opened at Kempsey in July 2004.
  • In November 2004 management of the medium security Kariong Juvenile Detention Centre near Gosford was transferred from the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Corrective Services NSW for use as a correctional centre.

  • Wellington Correctional Centre, near Dubbo, opened in September 2007.
  • South Coast Correctional Centre, a 600-bed facility, opened in December 2010.
  • Shortland Correctional Centre opened in February 2013 as a maximum-security extension to the adjacent Cessnock Correctional Centre. 

Long Bay, Sydney, is a modern correctional facility amid notable heritage architecture

Long Bay, Sydney, is a modern correctional facility amid notable heritage architecture.