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Long Bay prison

Long Bay prison, possibly the women’s section, 1900s. Randwick Library Local Studies collection

Long Bay prison was actually opened this month 106 years ago and saw some of Sydney’s most notorious underworld figures incarcerated within its walls. I spoke to Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning about its history as detailed in the Dictionary of Sydney.

The Long Bay prison complex is significant as the only prison in Australia to be planned with separate prisons for men and women. After it opened in August 1909, it was our state’s principal prison complex for over 80 years. It is situated on a coastal ridge of the south-eastern beachside suburb, Malabar, and was designed by Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon in accordance with the views of the English prison reformer of the 1770s, John Howard. He believed prisons should be located away from town centres, on the rise of hill and exposed to the elements.

Kate Leigh

Kate Leigh sentenced to 5 years at Long Bay, 1915 from the Long Bay Photographic Description Books. State Records NSW

Priority was given to the female reformatory and construction began in 1901. When it opened, the new block, with its Federation Gothic entrance, was praised as one of the few purpose-designed women’s prisons in the world. The daily average occupancy was 124 female inmates, growing to its peak of 199 in 1916. Two recurrent inmates were the famous crime queens of the razor gangs, Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. By 1937, there were only 42 occupants in the 276-cell women’s section.

The male penitentiary was the first jail in New South Wales to cater especially for petty offenders. Though it was less elaborate that the female reformatory, it took longer to complete and was opened in 1914. It consisted of six two-storey cell wings, a debtors’ prison, workshop, hospital and observation ward. For the first time, attention was paid to prisoners’ amenities, with cell sizes, electric lighting, ventilation sources and sanitary facilities. A baker’s oven was installed in 1915, beginning a long tradition of bread-making at Long Bay!

Tilly Devine

Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, Criminal record number 659LB, Long Bay, 27 May 1925. Sydney Living Museums

There was a an electrified line from 1906 installed to convey materials to the site, and until 1950 prisoners were conveyed in compartmented prison cars directly from Darlinghurst police station to the birdcages at the entrance block in Long Bay. By the 1920s, the facility was overcrowded and these problems continued until well into the 1960s, when it was found that 1,244 prisoners were confined to an area suitable for 815.

From 1968, work began in secret on a maximum security block to be called Katingal. It was designed to eliminate physical contact between inmates and staff and also between inmates and the outside environment. Despite this strict new block, inmates still managed to escape or riot, and eventually a Royal Commission was held in 1978 which recommended closure of the facility.

Since the 1980s, additional facilities have been introduced at Long Bay as well as a series of name changes. And enhanced security technology including motion detectors and video surveillance were installed, but this still has not completely stopped inmates from escaping. In January 2006, maximum security prisoner Robert Cole escaped from Long Bay by losing weight, removing bricks from his hospital jail cell and squeezing his way through the gap in the brick wall!

Check out the original article at the Dictionary of Sydney and listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.