Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) Health of prisoners., AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 19 January 2022
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Health of prisoners. Retrieved from https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/health-of-prisoners
Health of prisoners. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 23 July 2020, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/health-of-prisoners
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health of prisoners [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020 [cited 2022 Jan. 19]. Available from: https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/health-of-prisoners
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2020, Health of prisoners, viewed 19 January 2022, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/health-of-prisoners
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People in prison are a particularly vulnerable population. They are generally more disadvantaged, with higher health care needs than the wider Australian population. Most people in prison are there for relatively short periods, which means that the health issues of people in prison become health issues for the whole community. These factors suggest that people in prison need a high level of health care and continued health care and support in the community following their release.
Data for the National Prisoner Health Data Collection (NPHDC) is collected by the AIHW every 3 years and is the main source of national data about the health of people in prison in Australia. It presents information about the health experiences of people throughout the prison cycle—from entry, to time spent in prison, to discharge, and after release. It includes information on the operation of prison health clinics and the conditions they manage; the medications dispensed; self-reported information from people as they enter and exit the prison system—known as prison entrants and prison dischargees; and summary information, recorded by the prison clinics.
Like any survey, the NPHDC does have limitations. They include:
The prison population differs from the general population in a number of ways. People in prison are mostly male, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are vastly over-represented. People in prison experience higher rates of mental health conditions, chronic physical disease, communicable disease, tobacco smoking, high-risk alcohol consumption, illicit use of drugs, and injecting drug use than the general population (AIHW 2019a).
Prison stays are usually temporary. On 30 June 2019, one-third (33%, or 14,200) of the approximately 43,000 people in prison were on remand while awaiting trial or sentencing. For those who were sentenced, the median time they could expect to serve was 2 years (ABS 2019a). This means that the prison population is fluid, with people continually entering and being released from prison.
The number of Australians in prison has increased since 2011; in 2011, there were 29,107 people in prison, and in 2019, there were 43,028 people in prison.
Figure 1 data table (124KB XLSX)
Mental health is fundamental to social wellbeing, and affects individuals, families, and the wider community (ABS 2019b). Mental health conditions are chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and alcohol and other drug use disorders. These conditions can influence thoughts, feelings, behaviour, stress levels, relationships, and decision making.
In the NPHDC, prison entrants and dischargees were asked to rate their mental health as being excellent, very good, good, fair, poor or unknown. Of prisoners surveyed in 2018:
Chronic diseases are long-lasting conditions with persistent effects. Their social and economic consequences can affect people’s quality of life (AIHW 2016a). Some risk factors associated with chronic conditions are considered preventable, including poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity, tobacco smoking, risky alcohol consumption, illicit use of drugs, and unsafe sexual practices (AIHW 2016a).
In the NPHDC, prison entrants were asked whether they had ever been told by a medical professional that they had any of the following chronic physical health conditions: arthritis, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. Self-reported data rely on the respondents’ accurate recall and may not represent the true prevalence. Further, some prison entrants might have existing health conditions that have yet to be diagnosed.
Prison entrants ever diagnosed with a condition
Prison entrants with a current condition
Source: AIHW 2019a.
Tobacco smoking is one of the largest single preventable causes of death and disease in Australia. It is a major risk factor for many chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, multiple types of cancers, and asthma (AIHW 2016b).
Prison entrants were asked whether they had ever smoked tobacco and whether they currently smoked.
Of prisoners surveyed upon entry:
Illicit use of drugs can cause death and disability, and is a risk factor for many diseases. It is also associated with risks to users' family and friends, and to the community. Illicit use of drugs includes use of illegal drugs, misuse or non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs, and inappropriate use of other substances (AIHW 2019b). Illicit use of drugs is a primary motivating factor in many crimes—including non-violent property offences such as burglary and theft—particularly for those who have drug dependence (Kopak & Hoffmann 2014).
Prison entrants were asked about their drug use in the previous 12 months, also referred to as ‘recent’ drug use. Of those prison entrants surveyed:
The consumption of alcohol is widespread in Australia and entwined with many social and cultural activities. However, harmful levels of alcohol consumption are a major health issue associated with increased risk of chronic disease, injury and premature death (AIHW 2019b).
In the 2018 NPHDC, prison entrants were asked questions about their alcohol consumption in the previous 12 months. These were:
Of entrants surveyed in 2018, in the previous 12 months:
For more information on the health of people in prison, see:
Visit Prisoners for more on this topic.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2019a. Prisoners in Australia, 2019. ABS cat. no. 4517.0. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2019b. National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2016a. Evidence for chronic disease risk factors. Cat. no. WEB 166. Canberra: AIHW.
AIHW 2016b. Healthy communities: tobacco smoking rates across Australia, 2014–15 (in focus). Cat. no. HPF 1. Canberra: AIHW.
AIHW 2019b. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. Cat. no. PHE 221. Canberra: AIHW.
AIHW 2019a. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2018. Cat. no. PHE 246. Canberra: AIHW.
Kopak AM & Hoffmann NG 2014. Pathways between substance use, dependence, offense type, and offense severity. Criminal Justice Policy Review 25:743–60.
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