Long Bay Gaol was established just over 100 years ago on a ridge at Malabar, south of Sydney. This elevated site, removed from the city centre, was set aside for a gaol in 1901.

Construction on Long Bay Gaol, late 19th Century (Randwick Local Studies Library)

One of the features that made Long Bay Gaol unique was that it was planned – and built – as separate male and female institutions. The complex was designed by the NSW Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, and was the physical expression of Captain Frederick Neitenstein’s ideas about prison reform. Neitenstein, as the Inspector-General of Prisons from 1896 through to 1909, oversaw prison administration in NSW during this period.

Entrance to Long Bay Gaol before the 1950s (Randwick Local Studies Library)

Compared to earlier 19th century gaols, Long Bay was designed to improve the physical comfort of the prisoner – the cells were larger, there was electric lighting, and the sanitary arrangements were more hygienic.

Neitenstein, who had earlier worked with male juvenile offenders on the Vernon and Sobraon industrial school ships, advocated the principle of “restricted association”. This meant that prisoners ate their meals alone in their cells, but were allowed to associate during work, exercise and at church services. It was a departure from the Separate and Silent Systems favoured previously.

Associated with “restricted association” was the classification and separation of the prison population. For example, young first-time offenders and drunkards were to be separated from hardened or habitual criminals. Neitenstein also believed that work was central to reform. As a result, Long Bay Gaol had extensive workshops, with prisoners carrying out a range of jobs from baking bread to mat making.

The first building at Long Bay Gaol housed female prisoners and was known as the “Female Reformatory”‘. Construction on it began in 1901 and it was ready for occupation in 1909. The first prisoners were transferred from Biloela on Cockatoo Island, and Darlinghurst Gaol. The male prison was completed five years later, in 1914. Although Neitenstein retired just months after the gaol first opened in 1909, the legacy of his reforms in the NSW prison system continued over the 20th century.

By the mid to late 20th century, Long Bay was becoming increasingly overcrowded  – it was the principal prison and remand centre in NSW. To ease the overcrowding, female prisoners were moved to Mulawa at Silverwater in 1969. Around this time, planning was underway for a maximum security block to be built within the Long Bay Gaol complex which was built in secret.

Drawing by Patrick Cook during the movement to close Katingal, titled "A Big Country" (National Library of Australia)

Officially named Katingal but generally referred to as the “Electronic Zoo”, it was completed in 1975. The building was designed for violent prisoners, including top protection cases. Prisoners were locked up to house in special cells without any windows or natural light, and without the programs or privileges available to prisoners at other gaols. They were constantly monitored by cameras. All the doors were electronically operated, food was passed through hatches and prisoners were not allowed direct contact with prison officers. Katingal closed in 1978, just three years after it opened, as a result of the Nagle Royal Commission. It was finally demolished in 2006.