Gaol inmates & prisoners guide

Find out what types of prison records are available and how to access them

Find out what types of prison records are available and how to access them

Regulatory background

Provost Marshall

The position of Provost Marshall was established in New South Wales as part of the original civil establishment. The Provost Marshal carried out all the orders and judgements of the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction and the Civil Court. In criminal proceedings the Provost Marshal 'received the bodies of all offenders to hold in safe custody till trial', and was required to be present at all sittings of the Court. He, or his deputies executed sentences of death or other punishments.

The Sheriff

In 1823 the Sheriff replaced the office of Provost Marshall. The duties of the Sheriff included: executing all the judgments, decrees, and orders of the Supreme Court; in criminal cases, 'keeping the body of the accused until trial' and producing him/her in Court; carrying out the death sentence and any minor sentence the court might pass; attendance at all executions throughout the colony; arranging for the transmission and return of prisoners; organisation of the iron'd gangs working on Goat Island and on the streets of Sydney; and control of gaols.

Department of Prisons

From 1874 prisons were placed under the control of the Comptroller of Prisons. The Prisons Act of 1899 (Act No. 16, 1899) consolidated the existing Acts concerning the regulation and control of prisons and the custody of prisoners.

Department of Corrective Services

In 1970 the title of Department of Prisons was changed to Department of Corrective Services. In 1995 the Department stated that its official duty was to serve the people of New South Wales by carrying out orders of the courts in maintaining inmates in custody, or under supervision until they are lawfully released.

How do you know if someone was a gaol inmate?

Court records

Court records, court depositions and related documents provide details of people convicted in New South Wales. Some records show the sentence and may show the name of the gaol. The various court jurisdictions can be found in the State Archives catalogue.

Police gazettes

Police Gazettes, published from 1862 onwards can show details such as crimes committed, criminals wanted, criminals apprehended, prisoners discharged, and persons on good behaviour bonds. Police Gazettes are indexed and are available on microfilm between 1862 and 1900 in the reading room.

Death certificates

A death certificate may show that someone died in gaol.

Indexes to death certificates, 1788-1945, are available on microfiche in the reading room and the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages website.


There may be a report in a newspaper about someone going to gaol. We don't hold copies of newspapers. Contact the State Library of NSW or public libraries in the area.

Population records

Muster and census records prior to 1837 may show if an individual was a gaol inmate or in a penal settlement. See the Census & Musters Guide for details about NSW muster and census records.

Typical records of gaol inmates

Entrance book

This record shows entrance number of prisoner, date of entrance and conviction, name, offence, sentence, magistrate, age, religion, place of birth and ship of arrival, previous and subsequent entrance number and final disposal.

Description book

This record contains gaol number, name of prisoner, ship, where born, religion, trade, age, height, complexion, colour of hair and eyes, education (read and/or write) and physical peculiarities.

Entrance and description book

This series gives particulars of prisoners entering gaol including date, gaol number, name, address, committed (by whom, when and where), offence, sentence, where born, ship and year of arrival in the colony, religion, trade, age, height, colour of hair and eyes, education (read and/or write), remarks (physical peculiarities and disposal). From early in the 20th century details of assistance by the Prisoners Aid Association are noted. More recently, these books also record whether or not the person was Aboriginal.

Photograph description book

These records contain a photograph of each prisoner and the following details: number, name, aliases, date when portrait was taken, native place, year of birth, arrived in colony (ship and year), trade or occupation, religion, degree of education, height, weight (on committal, on discharge), colour of hair, colour of eyes, marks or special features, where and when tried, offence, sentence, remarks, and previous convictions (where and when, offence, sentence).

The series was created in accordance with the 'Gaol Regulation' proclaimed in the NSW Government Gazette of 19 February, 1867. While the series roughly covers the period 1870-1930, the dates of the books for each gaol vary.

The gaol photograph description books are indexed online.

Discharge books

Early volumes in this series note gaol number, ship and year of arrival, name of prisoner, offence, sentence, where and when convicted and details of discharge. Later volumes consist of duplicate and triplicate copies and record name, birth date, sentence and type of discharge.

Gaoler's journal

This series provides a daily record of the state of the gaol, and the security and conduct of the prisoners.

Records in the State archives

Below is a list of all the gaols for which we hold material. Consult our catalogue under Agency No 1, Corrective Services or search by name of the gaol for further information.

Note: records of gaol inmates may be incomplete.


Records over 70 years old

Records of individual offenders (inmates) and Corrective Services staff are open to public access after 70 years. The access direction covers the records of predecessor agencies to the Department such as the Department of Prisons.

Records less than 70 years old

1. Obtain permission from the Department of Communities and Justice

To access records closed to public access, that is records less than 70 years old, you will need written permission from the Department of Communities and Justice.

Department of Communities and Justice
Open Government, Information and Privacy
T (02) 9716 2662

Remember any letter from the Department should authorise access to the person who intends to inspect the records in our reading room.

2. Visit our Reading Room

Once you have written authorisation to access the records you will need to:

Please refer to Your Rights of Access for further information relating to accessing the State archives.