15 Current Issues Crim. Just. 170 (2003-2004)
The Nagle Royal Commission 25 Years on Speech Delivered to NSW Council for Civil Liberties, NSW Parliament House, 5 September 2003

handle is hein.journals/cicj15 and id is 174 raw text is: Contemporary Comment
THE NAGLE ROYAL COMMISSION 25 YEARS ON
Speech delivered to NSW Councilfor Civil Liberties,
NSW Parliament House, 5 September 2003
Introduction
It is 25 years since the release of the Report of the Nagle Royal Commission into NSW
Prisons in 1978. The Report and the events leading up to it constituted a watershed in NSW
and indeed Australian penal history. The Report came to signify a period of reform in NSW
penal affairs. That period, presided over by Prof Tony Vinson as Chair of the NSW
Corrective Services Commission, backed at least initially by the Wran Labor government
and significant sections of public opinion scandalised by the revelations of brutality,
incompetence and cover-up revealed at the Nagle Commission, was relatively short lived,
but highly significant none-the-less.
The reform momentum was slowed by a combination of the industrial resistance of the
prison officers union, the resignation of Tony Vinson, a hardening of media and public
attitudes to prisons and prisoners, and government backtracking, and was officially laid to
rest a decade later when the bellicose Michael Yabsley took over as Minister for Corrective
Services in the Greiner government of 1988 and sought to be remembered as someone who
had, as he expressed it, 'put the value back into punishment' (O'Neill 1990). There followed
a period of upheaval and violence in the NSW prison system, undoing many of the gains
made in the Nagle/Vinson reform period (Brown 1990, 1991). Following Yabsley's
removal in the early 1990s we have seen a decade of cautious penal politics in which the
major political imperative has been to keep prisons off the front pages and keep quiet about
any reforms, against the backdrop of a rapidly increasing prison population, a massive
prison building program and a volatile and punitive populist debate over law and order and
the criminal justice system.
In attempting to make an evaluation of the Nagle Royal Commission it is important to
see it in its context. That context was one of widespread upheaval from the late 1960s
onwards as the established order and traditions were rocked by anti-institutional
movements in universities, schools, psychiatric hospitals and elsewhere and by the rise of
new political subjectivities such as second wave feminism, black power, land rights, green
bans, environmentalism, 'alternative' subcultures, anti-colonial independence struggles
internationally, and widespread and growing opposition to the VietNam war.
When in October 1970 Superintendent Pallot, Governor of Bathurst Gaol threw the first
punch in leading a 'systematic flogging of a large number if not all of the prisoners in the
gaol' (to use the belated admission of counsel for the Prison Officers Vocational Branch of
the Public Service Association at the inquiry) little did he realise that he was setting in train
a sequence of events which was to lead to the Nagle Report. The road to Nagle was cleared
by prisoners at Bathurst 1970, such as Prisoners Action Group (PAG) founder Tony Green

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