"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.
Earliest times - transportation
The loss of its American colonies in 1783 forced Britain to find ways of dealing with criminals other than transporting them to the United States.
In 1786, it was decided to send them to New South Wales.
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.
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.
Strict new regulations issued in 1867 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 used the phrase "hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed." The regulations introduced in NSW in 1867 were designed to put into effect, the separate and silent systems which evolved in British prisons, where inmates were kept in single cells and not allowed to communicate with each other.
Under the new regulations all prisoners served one-twelfth or 12 months (whichever was the lesser) of their sentences in this separate system.
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 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.
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. 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.
The Nagle Report and beyond
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.
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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.
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 for the particular needs of Aboriginal inmates was opened near Brewarrina in far western NSW in June 2000. Named Yetta Dhinnakkal ("right pathway" in the Nyemba language) the minimum security centre accommodates up to 70 young offenders on a 10,500 hectare property to keep them separated from older, hardened prisoners in other prisons and to teach them rural skills.
In September 2001, the High Risk Management Centre (commonly known as the Supermax) was opened at Goulburn Correctional Complex as the first such facility in Australia, making it the highest security prison in the country.
Other prisons to open were:
Dillwynia Correctional Centre, which opened within the John Morony Correctional Complex at Windsor in 2004.
Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, a 500-bed facility opened at Kempsey in July 2004.
Management of the medium-security Kariong Juvenile Detention Centre near Gosford on the Central Coast was transferred from the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Corrective Services NSW in November 2004. It later became an adult prison.
- 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
- August 2015 - NSW prisons go smoke free.
An unprecedented drop in the inmate population resulted in the closure of some prisons from 2011, including:
- November 2011 - 174-year-old Berrima prison
- December 2011 - 169-year-old Parramatta prison (alongside the Kirkconnell centre)
- June 2012 - 119-year-old Grafton Correctional Centre was downsized and transformed into an intake and transient facility
- December 2012 - 103-year-old Long Bay Metropolitan Special Programs Centre Area 1 (MSPC 1)
In February 2013, the 100-bed minimum-security H Block at Silverwater was reopened as part of the state-wide reconfiguration, together with a 250-bed maximum-security wing at Cessnock.
As the prison population increased, greater attention was turned to reducing reoffending. This included providing inmates with more inmate access to literacy, numeracy and training programs.
The EQUIPS (explore, question, understand, investigate, practice, succeed) suite of programs was launched in the Sydney region in February 2017 to address offending behaviour related to addiction, aggression and domestic abuse as part of the reducing reoffending strategy. The short-term rehabilitation courses were expanded to regional NSW in September the same year.
In June 2017, it was announced 10 high-intensity program units would be established to deliver rehabilitation programs to about 1,200 prisoners each year serving short sentences of six months or less.
The units would target domestic violence, general violence and aggression, and also targeting female inmates and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates.
May 2017 - CSNSW is selected as the preferred bidder of John Morony Correctional Centre following a competitive tender process designed to lift standards, reduce reoffending and improve efficiency.
January 2018 - The Australian Corrections Medal is inaugurated, the first recipients announced as part of the Australia Day Honours.
April 2019 - Joint venture MTC/Broadspectrum takes over operations of Parklea Correctional Centre after replacing the GEO Group as operator.
In September 2019 it was announced four of the state’s smallest correctional centres would be retired, as new fit-for-purpose prison beds with a focus on rehabilitation become available.
Operations would be retired at Berrima, Grafton, Ivanhoe and Brewarrina correctional centres, and the Illawarra Reintegration Centre. As part of the operations improvement plan, Emu Plains and Kariong correctional centres would be repurposed into a dedicated mothers’ facility and transient centre, respectively.
The closures took place on:
- 19 March 2020 - Illawarra Reintegration Centre
- 2 April 2020 - Berrima Correctional Centre
- 10 June 2020 - Brewarrina (Yetta Dhinnakkal)
- 10 June 2020 - Ivanhoe (Warakirri) Correctional Centre
5 August 2020 - Grafton Intake and Transient Centre formally closed
Prison expansions and openings
Legislative changes and active policing resulted in a sharp increase in the prison population from 2013, resulting in the reopening of both the Kirkconnell Correctional Centre and Long Bay's MSPC 1 in 2015.
In 2016, a massive $3.8 billion, four-year Better Prisons/ Prison Bed Capacity Program was announced involving construction or expansion of 17 correctional centres across NSW including:
Illawarra Reintegration Centre – Recommissioned and opened in June 2017. The site and buildings were opened as Wollongong Periodic Detention Centre on 2 July 1993 and closed around 2010 with the abolition of periodic detention.
Mary Wade Correctional Centre – The former Juniperina Juvenile Detention Centre at Lidcombe was upgraded and reopened as the Mary Wade Correctional Centre, a new 94-bed maximum-security women's prison, in November 2017.
Parklea Correctional Centre - A new 150-bed minimum-security facility for male inmates, known as Area 4, was opened in November 2017.
Macquarie Correctional Centre - Australia's first Rapid-Build Prison, a 400-bed maximum-security facility, was officially opened at Wellington, near Dubbo, in December 2017.
Hunter Correctional Centre A Rapid-Build prison for 400 male inmates was opened in January 2018, within the Cessnock Correctional Complex.
South Coast Correctional Centre - A 200-bed minimum-security expansion opened in August 2018, followed by a new 160-bed maximum-security wing in June 2019.
Shortland Correctional Centre – A 330-bed maximum-security wing officially opened in May 2019, increasing the centre's capacity from 250 to 580 beds.
Goulburn Correctional Complex - A new high-security unit housing extremist and terrorism-related offenders, the 46-bed High Risk Management Correctional Centre 2 (Supermax 2) was officially opened in May 2019.
Clarence Correctional Centre – Australia's largest prison, a 1,700-bed centre at Lavadia near Grafton, was officially opened in June 2020. This is a privately operated and run facility.
March 2020 - The Outer Metropolitan Multi-Purpose Correctional Centre is renamed Geoffrey Pearce Correctional Centre, in memory of correctional officer Geoffrey Pearce OAM, who died in August 1997 from HIV after being stabbed by an inmate with a contaminated syringe in 1990.
The John Morony Correctional Complex is renamed Francis Greenway Correctional Complex. Francis Greenway was an English-born architect who came to Australia as a convict in 1814 and became Australia's first government architect. The Francis Greenway Correctional Complex includes John Morony, Dillwynia and Geoffrey Pearce Correctional Centres.
Thirty years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody
Corrective Services NSW has implemented more than 90 per cent of recommendations concerning the safety of Aboriginal peoples in custody, since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
We have increased our efforts to seek the views and expertise of Aboriginal peoples, and continue to listen to and learn from their knowledge, strength and resilience.
We understand the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples relies on more than just their physical environment, but includes their health, education, work opportunities and connection to family and culture.
Since the Royal Commission, CSNSW has made significant progress in the way we support and engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in custody, including:
- Improving the exchange of information on inmates’ physical and mental health between NSW Police and the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network.
- Continuously improving and reviewing screening processes for inmates entering custody to ensure at-risk inmates are identified and appropriate action is taken to meet their physical and mental health needs.
- Continuing to remove obvious hanging points and high-risk fixtures in correctional centres and court cells that accommodate inmates at-risk of self-harm or suicide.
- New accommodation constructed as part of the NSW Government’s $3.8 billion Prison Bed Capacity Program includes anti-ligature furniture and fittings.
- Establishing the Management of Deaths in Custody Committee to ensure:
- Every Aboriginal death in custody is immediately reported to the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Affairs, the Custody Notification Service Hotline and appropriate cultural support services; and
- All recommendations from the Coroner are reviewed and where appropriate, accepted and implemented into policy and procedure.
- Actively seeking the formal involvement of Aboriginal community representatives in devising policies and programs.
- Exploring and applying new technologies to allow families to maintain meaningful contact with Aboriginal peoples in custody.
- Implementing culturally-specific programs in prisons to engage inmates in a range of activities including producing Aboriginal art, learning Aboriginal languages and constructing affordable housing for Aboriginal families.
- Establishing the Aboriginal Womens Employment and Training Hub to provide targeted education, programs and therapeutic interventions.
- Promoting the expansion of diversionary programs and facilitating the increased participation of Aboriginal women in all non-custodial sentencing options.
- Providing post-release referrals for Aboriginal women with a focus on stable accommodation and health.
- Providing staff cultural awareness training.
- Collaborating with other government and community agencies to meet the complex support needs of Aboriginal offenders leaving custody.
07 Mar 2023