If you're reading this article, you may be someone who is just curious about what prison in Australia is like. Maybe you were watching Wentworth or Prison Break, or maybe you were discussing it with some mates. Maybe your loved one just got sent to prison, and you are worried for their safety. Or maybe, like I was, you are wondering because there is a very real chance you are going to be sentenced to prison.
I hope that you aren't facing jail time, but if you are, know that you will be OK. I remember the anxiety I felt the night before I went in, but most of that arose because I didn't know what to expect. If I knew what I know now, I would have felt a lot more comfortable going in. Of course, it's not going to be easy, and there will be some days where it will be tough. But trust me, you will get through it, and I hope you can find the information you need from my site to help you. Before I went in, I couldn't find much real information about what it would be like, so I decided that when I got out, I would help others find answers to some of the questions I had. You may want to read my article about how to survive in prison, which has some helpful tips.
If you read through this article, and you still have questions, I offer consultations via phone call. If you want to make a booking, or find out more information, reach out using the Contact Form at the bottom of the About Me page.
What's the difference between prison, jail, gaol and correctional centre?
In Australia, gaol is the old spelling of the word jail, and neither words are used any longer in the current Corrective Services vocabulary. The word jail used to be technically a place for a short-term stay, for example the holding cells in a police station, while prisons are where inmates (also known as prisoners) serve out their sentence. Although Corrective Services still use the word prison, they now call most of their prisons "correctional centres" (or "correctional facilities" if you are in a different state).
In the real world, people use the words jail and prison interchangeably, and most inmates refer to prison as jail. I will switch between the two but the meaning is the same.
So, what's jail like?
Jail in Australia is NOT like you see in many American movies, where you are confined in a bare concrete cell with metal bars, or in a big dorm with 50 bunk beds. Prisoners do not wear orange, and not every criminal is 6'2" with bulging muscles and covered in tatts.
Firstly, inmates in Australia wear green, not orange, and a lot of them look like an average guy you would meet outside. I remember thinking when I first arrived in jail, that most people "don't look like criminals". Sure, you do have a few that are intimidating - there are bikies, there are muscley tatted-up guys, but the majority of them are not like that. The age range is quite spread out too. There is a concentration around 30 - 40 years old, but there are inmates in their 50s, 60s and even 70s.
Picture of a real Australian prison
The living conditions can vary greatly, depending on which jail you go to. In a few jails, the cells DO look like the ones you see in prison movies, but don't worry because you don't have to spend your whole sentence there. When you get classo'd (classified) you can get moved to a prison with more comfortable living conditions.
Prison is pretty boring in general, especially if you are in a non-working jail. Inmates spend most of the day playing cards, watching TV, working out, sleeping, or chatting. Once in a while there will be a fight, but it depends on which jail you are in, and what level of security that determines the extent and frequency of fights.
There are different types of jails that mean a 'typical day' varies a lot depending on where you go. Firstly, prisoners in NSW are divided into different classifications (known as 'classo' in jail lingo) based on your risk. There is A classo which is maximum security, B classo which is medium security, and C classo which is minimum security. There is also E classo for those that have tried to escape from prison in the past. Each classification has a different number of hours that inmates are allowed outside of their cell, as well different levels of confinement required.
At one extreme is Supermax, where inmates are only allowed one hour out of the cell per day, to walk around what is essentially an in-ground empty swimming pool, with armed guards watching all around from the outside. On the other end is C3 classo, where inmates live on a farm jail inside a unit with cooking appliances and Foxtel, with no fences marking the perimeter of the jail. C3 inmates that have met certain requirements are even allowed to go on weekend leave with their family. They can leave the jail on Friday evening, spend the weekend at home and return to jail on Sunday afternoon.
What's jail food like?
I was expecting the food to be slop served on a metal tray and slid through a hole in the door, as I had seen so many times in movies. Or I thought it would be like an American school canteen where you line up with your tray, get slop scooped on your plate, and then you find a table to sit in a huge hall, like in other American jail movies.
In Australia (technically, I only know NSW, but I presume it is similar in other states) the dinners are frozen meals that are sent to every state-run prison and heated up before it is served. Twice a week the dinners are cold (such as the egg and pasta salad seen on the right) and these are usually the better ones because they are fresh, not frozen. Jail food is far from slop, but it is not good. It is edible, but you mostly will not enjoy it, and it is NOT nutritionally sufficient. There are a few meals that are actually good, for example chicken wings (called Chicken bites, or Devil wings) but you are only given three tiny wings, alongside a pasta salad or potato salad.
For weekday lunches, you will get a defrosted pre-packaged wrap or sandwich, that could have been made months earlier along with a small fruit salad or yoghurt and an apple.
Boiled eggs and pasta salad - one of the standard dinners
Picture: Sam Ruttyn
On weekends, the lunches are often hot - meat pies, sausage rolls, or pigs in a blanket (also known as cock in a sock). Breakfast is bread, jam, cereal and milk. You also get snacks that include ANZAC cookies, muffins, choc chip cookies, and bananas.
If you are in a privately owned prison, such as Junee or Clarence, the food you receive will be different. Instead of the frozen meals from Corrective Services Industries, the food is prepared by inmates that work in the kitchen. At some minimum security jails like Clarence, Glen Innes and Muswellbrook, inmates are allowed to buy a limited amount of perishable food, such as frozen meat and fresh veggies, that they can cook themselves.
Inmates can also buy grocery items from a list each week (known as bubble buy-up). This is called bubble buy-up because the form you fill in is like those multiple-choice answer sheets you fill in at school, with the little bubbles you colour in. Across the state, the items you can buy on the bubble buy-up is the same (unless you are in a privately-run jail) and occasionally changes to add new items or remove discontinued or unpopular items. Inmates can spend $100 each week on bubble buy-up although it was increased to $150 during the height of the COVID pandemic. One of the most popular items that inmates buy is canned tuna. There is a 'Black and Gold' brand tuna in oil which cost around $1.80 per tin, that gym junkies love for the protein, while the premium 'Sirena' brand chilli tuna is $4.85. The Sirena tastes a lot better, but is more expensive, and is also used as currency in jail. One Sirena in jail is essentially the equivalent of a $5 note (remember, there is no money allowed inside jails). People use Sirenas as payment for favours, buying tobacco (that is illegally smuggled in) or for gambling (illegal but sometimes the screws - jail slang for officers/guards - turn a blind eye). Other items that are popular on the buy-up list are instant noodles, soft drinks, chocolate bars and chips.
Ask an ex-inmate any questions about jail
If you have any quick questions that you are curious about, or if you are facing imprisonment and need some more info, please leave me a message below with your details.
I am also available for telephone consultations if you need to chat for longer.
What do prisoners do to pass the time in jail?
This depends on what type of jail you are in. In maximum security (maxo) jails, most of the time is spent locked in the cell, so inmates spend most of the time sleeping or watching TV. In jails with later lock-ins (lock-in is the time you are locked into your cell) inmates spend their free time playing table tennis, playing cards, exercising, walking, talking, making phone calls or playing chess. You can also get a job in the kitchen or as a sweeper (cleaner), which you get paid a small amount for, and makes the day go by quicker.
Some jails are working jails where every inmate has to work (usually four or five days a week) which helps the time pass. Inmates are paid a very small wage (equates to about $1 - $2 per hour) which can be used to buy food or put money on the phone. It is also possible to save it up, and when you are released, any amount you have left in the jail account is given to you.
Do you have unanswered questions?
There are so many facets of life in prison, that I cannot possibly cover in one article. If you are looking for information I haven't mentioned here, you can try searching my site using the search function at the top right of the page, or navigating through the menu. Also, I am constantly adding to the site, so I may not have covered the topic you want to learn about yet. If that is the case, please leave a comment or reach out to me with the Contact Form, and I will do my best to get back to you with an answer, or even write an article about it. If you still have questions, I do offer consultations via phone call. If you want to book a consult, or find out more info, message me using the Contact Form above.