When Ann Symonds became a Labor MLC in September 1982 she chose to join the three caucus sub-committees that focused on Women, the Arts and Corrective Services. She remembered that there was little competition for the last assignment: more ambitious members of caucus tended to see Corrective Services as a grim backwater. By 1982, however, overcrowding and lack of services in women’s prisons were demanding a response.

The activists of Women Behind Bars – ex-prisoners, lawyers and students – had been disappointed by the major review of the New South Wales prison system conducted by Justice J F Nagle in that late 1970s. In Nagle’s report women’s experience of incarceration was subsumed into that of the male majority, except for one brief chapter that acknowledged problems ‘peculiar to women’ such as a lack of appropriate medical care.

Women Behind Bars were making it much harder to ignore women’s appalling conditions, although they objected to the government’s preferred solution, which was to build another prison. Ann was sworn in to the Council just before Rex Jackson, the Minister for Corrective Services, announced a new ‘prison complex for women’ and predicted that it would be ‘another great achievement of the Wran government’. This was a difficult moment for Labor women as party loyalty risked stranding them outside the consensus of the wider women’s movement that more and more ‘efficient’ incarceration was not the answer to overcrowding.

Ann dated her own interest in prison reform to 1973, when Suzanne Bellamy of Women’s Liberation organised a protest outside the Parramatta Girls Home. For anyone trying to understand the history of women’s imprisonment in New South Wales, Parramatta was Ground Zero. A cluster of heritage buildings made visible the genealogy of women prisoners’ ‘peculiar’ problems. The idea that those problems were simultaneously marginal but intractable dated to the earliest days of the colony.

Convict authorities designed a system of punishments and privileges for men, who had the skills and strength that could be used to build the new colony. The small minority of transported women – ‘useful’ only as domestic servants – were outside this carefully crafted regime and subject to harsher judgments on their morals and behaviour. These inconvenient anomalies were the first convicts to be incarcerated when the Female Factory was built in 1804 and then replaced in 1821 with a larger specially designed building, which was presumably ‘another major achievement’ of Governor Macquarie’s public works program.

The Parramatta Girls Home, which stood next to the Factory building, was the legacy of a later experiment in incarceration. In the second half of the nineteenth century Industrial Schools were set up to confine juvenile offenders as well as children who were considered ‘neglected, uncontrollable or exposed to moral danger’. The schools were supposed to train the young people in some saleable trade. In practice inmates in what was originally known as the Industrial School for Females, were – like convict women and generations of stolen Aboriginal girls – condemned to domestic service.

At Parramatta distinctions between the rescued and the convicted broke down; young women were blamed for their own neglect and especially for their ‘exposure to moral danger’. In 1973, when Ann Symonds joined the protest, Parramatta Girls Home was a notorious site of physical and sexual abuse. It was closed down in the following year, although the place was quickly recycled. When Ann arrived in the Legislative Council in 1982, Parramatta’s ‘historic precinct’ housed the Kamballa ‘Children’s Shelter’ and the Norma Parker Detention Centre for Females, which was an annex to the main women’s prison, Mulawa, and confined women with a low security classification.

This was not the first time Parramatta buildings had been re-used. When the Industrial School for Females arrived in Parramatta in 1887 it took over the premises of the Roman Catholic Orphan School. The origins of Sydney’s Orphan Schools touch on one of Ann’s lifelong concerns – the treatment of prisoners’ children. The first school was set up as early as 1801 and during the convict era most of the so-called orphans were the children of convict mothers. Women who arrived with children lost them to the schools, while those who got pregnant in New South Wales gave birth in the Female Factory and had their children removed when they were weaned. Convicted women were generally seen as unsuitable mothers. In these orphan schools the distinction between incarceration and education was blurred and girls were trained in – surprise – domestic skills.

READ MORE – Prisons Chapter 2