Adults in Australia who commit or allegedly commit crimes are dealt with by the criminal justice system. There are 118 custodial correctional facilities across Australia. On an average day in 2017–18, these housed almost 42,000 prisoners. Australia has 9 legal systems, 1 for each state and territory and 1 for the Commonwealth. While the criminal justice systems in each jurisdiction are similar, they remain separate. Therefore, laws, penalties and arrangements for administering justice differ across state and territory boundaries (ABS, 1997).

Trends

Australia’s prison population is increasing in both number and as a proportion of the population. The average daily prison population grew from 27,612 in 2008–09 to 41,867 in 2017–18. During the same period, the imprisonment rate increased from 166.9 to 216.8 per 100,000 adults (Figure 1). The most common offences for prisoners in Australia as at 30 June 2018 were acts intended to cause injury (22%), illicit drug offences (16%), and sexual assault and related offences (12%) (ABS 2018b). 

Overrepresentation

When comparing the 2018 prison population to the general adult population, prisoners were:

  • far more likely to be male—more than 8 in 10 (85%) adult prisoners were male, compared with 49.6% of the general adult population (AIHW 2019)
  • more likely to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians—almost 2 in 5 (38%) adult prison entrants were Indigenous, compared with just 3.2% of the adult population (see Indigenous community safety)
  • younger—2 in 3 (66%) prisoners were under 40, compared with around 1 in 3 (32%) in the general community aged 18 to under 40 (ABS 2018a).

Almost 3 in 4 (73%) prison entrants had been in prison before, and almost half (45%) of prison entrants had been in prison within the previous 12 months (AIHW 2019).

Health

Prisoners have higher levels of mental health problems, risky alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, illicit drug use, chronic disease and communicable diseases than the general population (AIHW 2013). This means they have significant and complex health and welfare needs, often long term or chronic. The health of prisoners is sufficiently poorer than that of the general community, and prisoners are often considered to be ‘old’ at age 50–55 (Williams et al. 2014).

Since 2009, the AIHW has run the National Prisoner Health Survey, over a 2-week period every 3 years. In the 2018 survey, just under 1 in 3 (30%) prison entrants reported a history of one or more selected chronic conditions (asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and/or cancer) (AIHW 2019). These conditions must be managed while they are in prison.

In 2018, 2 in 5 (40%) prison entrants reported a previous diagnosis of a mental health disorder, including alcohol and drug misuse. Female prison entrants (65%) were more likely than male prison entrants (36%) to report a history of a mental health condition. Non-Indigenous prison entrants (44%) were more also more likely to report a history of a mental health condition than Indigenous prison entrants (33%) (AIHW 2019).

2 in 5 (40%) prison entrants reported a previous diagnosis of a mental health disorder, including alcohol and drug misuse (AIHW 2019).

Entering and leaving prison can be highly stressful for those in the prison system. The experience of being in prison, the prison environment, relationships with other prisoners, family, housing and employment, as well as alcohol and other drug use may all be potential causes of concern and distress for prisoners.

Prison entrants and dischargees were asked about their recent psychological distress levels, and about their perceived reasons for any distress. Just over 1 in 4 (26%) prison entrants scored high or very high levels of psychological distress, with female prison entrants more than twice as likely to score high or very high levels (52%) when compared with male prison entrants (22%).

Employment

The ability to gain and maintain employment is key to successful reintegration of former prisoners into the community post release. Many prisoners, particularly Indigenous prisoners, have complex and sometimes traumatic personal histories which remain upon release and make employment difficult (COAG 2016).

More than half (54%) of prison entrants reported they were unemployed during the 30 days before prison (AIHW 2019).

Prisoners come from a group who already face difficulties in gaining employment. They generally have low levels of education, low socioeconomic position, high levels of drug and alcohol misuse, high levels of mental health issues, and poor work histories. Imprisonment adds to this mix, making it even more difficult for prisoners to find a job, particularly for those who have been in prison for longer than 6 months (Ramakers et al. 2014).

Fewer than 1 in 4 (22%) prison dischargees reported they had paid employment organised to start within 2 weeks of release from prison (AIHW 2019).

Education

Education is a recognised social determinant of health, with lower levels of education associated with poorer health (Mitrou et al. 2014). People in prison have lower levels of educational attainment and higher levels of learning difficulties and learning disabilities than people in the general community (AIHW 2015; Kendall & Hopkins 2019). Lower levels of educational attainment are associated with poorer employment opportunities and outcomes and unemployment is a risk factor for incarceration and for reoffending after release (Baldry et al. 2018).

Prison entrants were asked about the highest level of schooling they had completed and qualifications they attained other than school.

1 in 3 (33%) prison entrants had an education level of below Year 10 (AIHW 2019).

In 2018, 1 in 3 (33%) prison entrants had not completed Year 10 and 15% had completed Year 8 or below as their highest level of education completed. A total of 2% had no formal schooling. Less than 1 in 5 (19%) prison entrants reported they had completed the equivalent of Year 12 (Figure 2).

Income support

Unemployment is linked with poor psychosocial outcomes. This includes mental health issues, alcohol and other drug use disorders, and criminal offending (Fergusson et al. 2014).

Most (78%) prison dischargees in 2018 were expecting to receive some form of financial assistance from Centrelink after release (Figure 3). Almost 1 in 4 (23%) expected to receive income support (including Disability Support Pension)and a further 28% a crisis payment. Another 26% expected to receive both payments.

Where do I go for more information?

See Prisoners for more on this topic.

For more information on prisoners in Australia, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 1997. Australian Social Trends, 1997. ABS cat. no. 4102.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018a. Australian demographic statistics, September 2018. ABS cat. no. 3101.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018b. Prisoners in Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no. 4517.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2013. The health of Australia's prisoners 2012. Cat. no. PHE170. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2015. The health of Australia's prisoners 2015. Cat. no. PHE207. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. The health of Australia’s prisoners, 2018. Cat. no. PHE246. Canberra: AIHW.

Baldry E, Bright D, Cale J, Day A, Dowse L, Giles M, et al. 2018. A future beyond the wall: improving post-release emplyment outcomes for people leaving prison: final report. Sydney: UNSW Sydney.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2016. Prison to work report, 2016.

Fergusson DM, McLeod GF & Horwood LJ 2014. Unemployment and psychosocial outcomes to age 30: A fixed-effects regression analysis. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 48:735–42.

Kendall A & Hopkins T 2019. Inside out literacies: literacy learning with a peer-led prison reading scheme. International Journal of Bias, Identity and Diversities in Education, 4(1):18.

Li J & Powdthavee N 2015. Does more education lead to better health habits? Evidence from the school reforms in Australia. Soc Sci Med 127:83–91.

Maralani V 2014. Understanding the links between education and smoking. Social Science Research 48:20–34.

Mitrou F, Cooke M, Lawrence D, Povah D, Mobilia E, Guimond E et al. 2014. Gaps in Indigenous disadvantage not closing: a census cohort study of social determinants of health in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand from 1981–2006. BMC Public Health 14:201.

Ramakers A, Apel R, Nieuwbeerta P, Dirkzwager AJE & Van Wilsem J 2014. Imprisonment length and post-prison employment prospects. Criminology 52:399–427.

SCGRSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Services) 2018. Report on government services 2018. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

Williams BA, Ahalt C & Greifinger RB 2014. The older prisoner and complex chronic medical care. In: Prisons and health. Copenhagen: WHO, 165–70.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Adult imprisonment rate, 2007–08 to 2017–18

This figure shows the adult imprisonment rate over time, from 2007-08 to 2017-18. It shows a steady rise from 166.9 in 2007-8 to 216.8 per 100,000 adults in 2017-18.

Figure 2: Highest level of education achieved by prison entrants, 2018

This figure shows the highest level of educational attainment reported by prison entrants in 2018. It shows that 15% had Year 8 or below, 17% had Year 9, 29% had Year 10, 16% had Year 11, 19% had Year 12 and 2% had either no schooling or their education level was unknown.

Figure 3: Expected income source of prison dischargees, 2018

This figure shows the source of income prison dischargees expect to receive following release from prison. It shows that 23% expected to receive an income support payment including the disability support pension, 28% expected to receive a crisis payment and 26% expected to receive both a crisis and income support payment. For 12% of discharges their income source was unknown and 10% had no source of income post release.