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Although South Australia was proclaimed a free settlement, colonial officials soon found they needed a gaol to house lawbreakers. As no provision had been made for one, until June 1837 the governor’s ship, the Buffalo, became the colony’s first prison. While locals blamed crime on felons arriving from the eastern colonies, the reality was that harsh conditions and scarcity of necessities resulted in a rise in excessive drinking and its associated problems.

Adelaide Gaol

A small temporary wooden gaol capable of accommodating about eight prisoners soon became overcrowded. A grand jury recommended a more permanent structure, and Adelaide Gaol, designed by George Strickland Kingston, was opened in 1841 on the banks of the River Torrens in the west parklands. This imposing structure with two towers accommodated debtors and felons both male and female. Its costly construction of Adelaide limestone quarried from the parklands and bricks made on site contributed to the bankruptcy of the colony and recall of the second governor, George Gawler.

Until major additions in 1850, when a section was set aside for women, prisoners were confined between the inner and outer walls and locked up at night in a communal ward. As Adelaide Gaol was merely a place of retention not of correction, prisoners whose sentences were longer than seven years were transported to other colonies.

Yatala Gaol 

After the Imperial government abolished such transportation in 1852, Yatala Gaol was established at the site of a large commercial quarry; hard labor and severe discipline were its main features. Unlike the communal ward system at Adelaide Gaol, the ‘separate system’ of single cells for prisoners was introduced.

Regional Prisons

With the spread of population, smaller gaols were built at Robe and Mount Gambier in the South East, Gladstone (1881–1975) and Burra in the Mid North, Port Lincoln on Eyre Peninsula and Wallaroo on Yorke Peninsula. The Police Prisons Act (1905) allowed for sentences of no more than one month to be served at the rural police stations of Fowlers Bay, Kingscote, Renmark, Streaky Bay and Tarcoola.

The conservative prison administration of South Australia lagged behind the other colonies. Although minimum security farm prisons were investigated at the end of the nineteenth century, Kyeema Prison Camp, in the Bangham Forest in the South East between Mount Gambier and Wolseley, was not established until 1923. It was replaced by the open Cadell prison on the River Murray near Morgan in May 1960. Women were accommodated at the Adelaide Gaol and in gaols around the state until a women’s prison was opened at Northfield on 14 December 1969.

Current Prisons

The prisons operating in 2001 were Yatala, Mobilong and Port Augusta, the prison farm at Port Lincoln, the Cadell Training Centre, and Adelaide’s Women’s Prison at suburban Northfield. The newest, Mount Gambier Prison, is the first to be privately managed. Adelaide Gaol, the second oldest public building in the state, closed in February 1988 and is now a tourist attraction, as are other closed country gaols.

Currently, slightly less than 5000 people annually pass through the prison system while a further 20,000 are supervised by 16 community corrections centres.

By Patricia Sumerling

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history, edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly and references updated. Uploaded 14 August 2015. 

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Image: an aerial photograph of a prison arranged in a half octagonal panopticon style. With long rectangular cell blocks inter-spaced with triangular paved yards. A high wall surrounds the buildings.
Image: A two-storey octagonal stone tower set within a high wall with a crenellated parapet.
Image: a two storey stone building with a brick arched loggia and barred upper storey balcony. A security camera is mounted on one end of the building.
Image: a two storey stone building backs onto a high wall with two octagonal towers. In the foreground people walk or ride across an open field.
Image: A sketch of a room interior showing beds and sick people being tended to by medical practioners
Image: Front view of a long stone building with barred windows and a tree in front.
Image: A sketch of a large yard surrounded by a high stone wall, some armed men in uniforms stand looking at a large group of men standing in the yard
Image: An old motorised van parked next to a building with a man sitting in the front drivers seat
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