Courtesy of ABC 7:30 report

By the National Reporting Team’s Josie Taylor

Barry York and Brian Pola, two of the La Trobe Three
Two of the La Trobe Three, Brian Pola (left) and Barry York, reunite outside the old Pentridge Prison.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

It seems unfathomable today: three Australian university students jailed for months in a maximum security prison for protesting on campus.

“You would hear guys being beaten up. No other word for it, you’d hear the screws [guards] opening the doors, you’d hear the guys screaming, the thuds,” Barry York said.

He’s one of three La Trobe University students, dubbed the La Trobe Three, who were thrown in Melbourne’s notorious bluestone Pentridge Prison in 1972.

They were hardline Marxists who led protests and occupations against the Vietnam War on the newly established La Trobe campus.

Two of the three, Mr York and Brian Pola, reunited for the first time in five years outside the front of Pentridge.

“We were jailed without trial, without rights of appeal or bail,” Mr York said.

Pentridge Prison was the home to some of Australia’s most infamous inmates, including murderers and rapists.

Spending about three months there was a harrowing experience for the young men in their early 20s.

‘Young meat’ in a notorious prison

Brian Pola
Brian Pola was assaulted during his time in Pentridge.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

Mr Pola was particularly vulnerable, having recently come out as a gay man.

“I was assaulted one night on D division after we got back from an appearance on the Supreme Court,” he said.

“Yes, I guess I was just young meat.”

La Trobe Three
Barry York, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson (right to left) speaking at a rally.(Supplied)

Mr York and Mr Pola both struggled to get jobs after being released from jail.

“I had a Victorian Government teaching studentship,” Mr Pola said.

“They refused to honour it and preferred to pay me out because they couldn’t have a person of my character teaching in a school.”

Mr York said he was told he would never get work as a teacher.

“I have no regrets at all about that period of genuine rebellion,” Mr York said.

“But afterwards, how could I not regret the lost years of employment and career?”

A black and white photo of Students protesting at La Trobe University.
‘It’s right to rebel’: La Trobe was a hot bed of student activism.(Supplied)

The La Trobe Three were jailed after years of political activism at La Trobe University. The campus was a hot-bed of radicalism — students occupied buildings for days, called mass meetings and burnt draft cards.

“We questioned the culture, the norms. Everything we had been told was right was under scrutiny,” Mr York said.

'Free Fergus and Brian. End Fascism'
‘Free Fergus and Brian. End Fascism’: A plea for the release of the La Trobe Three.(Supplied)

The three defied a Supreme Court order banning them from campus, which instigated their jailing.

Trio refused offer to apologise and be freed

Mr Pola said the university’s vice-chancellor visited the students in Pentridge and said if they apologised they would be freed.

“We were there on principle, we knew that we had to stay in there. We could not apologise, that would be a backing down,” Mr Pola said firmly.

Eventually the university and state government relented and the three students were released.

La Trobe University is now celebrating the La Trobe Three, inviting them back as honoured guests for the university’s 50th anniversary.

But the university has never apologised for its role in the students’ jailing.

“They haven’t asked for an apology,” La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar said.

“But I do think setting in train events that led to their incarceration without trial or charge, I think was an excessive act by the university.”

Brian Pola and Barry York reunite at Pentridge
It’s been five years since Barry York (left) Brian Pola last saw each other.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

Despite the impact on their lives, Mr York and Mr Pola have never sought an apology.

“To be honest, apologies are generally BS unless they are connected to some sort of compensation or something beyond words,” said Mr York, who wrote a book about student activism and recently retired as an oral historian at Canberra Old Parliament House.

‘I’ve got no regrets’

Barry York
Barry York still remembers hearing people being beaten up in prison.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

Mr Pola is also an author and lives in Ballarat.

“I’ve got no regrets about any actions that I took politically 45 years ago,” he said.

“I think the best kind of compensation this university, 45 years later, can make … is to make sure it is a truly radical, cutting-edge university that fights for the rights of oppressed people all around the world.”

Fergus Robinson, the other member of the La Trobe Three, was unable to participate in this story due to family commitments.

The three men have remained friends for the last 45 years.