Deaths in custody

There are many reasons a person might die while in prison or in police custody. Similar to deaths in the community, people in prison die from illness, accidents and injuries, ageing and suicide. Over the past 2 decades, with the prison population ageing at a rapid rate, deaths from natural causes have increased.

Data on deaths in custody came from the Australian Institute of Criminology report Deaths in custody in Australia 2021–22 (McAlister and Bricknell 2022).

Deaths in custody comprise deaths in prison custody and in police custody. Deaths in prison custody include deaths in prison or youth detention facilities, deaths that occur during transfer to or from these facilities, and deaths in medical facilities after transfer from these facilities (McAlister and Bricknell 2022). This section presents deaths in prison custody, unless otherwise specified.

The Australian Institute of Criminology monitors deaths in custody through the National Deaths in Custody Program, which was established in 1992 following the 1989 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The National Deaths in Custody Program found that:

  • between 1979–80 and 2021–22, 3,310 people died in custody (including 2,157 in prison custody), of which 19% were First Nations people and 80% were non-Indigenous Australians
  • between 1979–1980 and 2021–22, over half (58%) of First Nations people who died in prison custody were younger than 40, compared with 44% of non-Indigenous people who died in prison custody
  • the most common causes of death since 2000–01 were natural causes (65% of all prison custody deaths since 2000–01)
  • cause of death by hanging fell from 43% of deaths in prison in 2000–01 to 22% in 2021– 22
  • between 2000–01 and 2021–22, non-Indigenous Australians were more likely to die in prison custody than First Nations people (McAlister and Bricknell 2022).

In 2021–22, 84 people died in prison custody (Indicator 1.6.1).

Of the 84 people who died in prison custody in 2021–22:

  • 16 deaths were First Nations people (death rate of 1.2 per 1,000 First Nations people in prison)
  • 68 were non-Indigenous people (death rate of 2.4 per 1,000 non-Indigenous people in prison) (McAlister and Bricknell 2022).

In 2021–22, 80 males (2.1 per 1,000 males in prison) and 4 females (1.3 per 1,000 females in prison) died in prison. Due to the relatively small number of females in prison, female death rates in prison were more likely to fluctuate over time.

The average (mean) age at death of people in prison in 2021–22 was 55 and the most common (median) age at death was 54.5.

The median age at death of people in prison in 2021–22 was lower for First Nations people in prison (43) than for non-Indigenous people in prison (57). This is consistent with the younger age of First Nations people in prison, and the lower life expectancy and higher mortality rate of First Nations people in the community, when compared with non-Indigenous Australians (Phillips et al. 2017). 

In 2022, the mean age for First Nations people in prison was 34.4 (median age of 33), compared with 39.5 for non-Indigenous Australians (median age of 37) (ABS 2023). In 2021– 22, a half (50%) of the deaths in prison were people aged 55 and above.

In 2021–22, there were a total of 84 deaths in prison of which:

  • 70% (59 people) were of people sentenced, and 30% (25 people) of people on remand
  • less than a half (46%) occurred in a hospital setting, either in a public hospital (26%) or in a prison hospital (19%)
  • less than a half (46%) died in their cell.

Of the 64 deaths in prison custody in 2021–22 where the cause of death was recorded:

  • the majority (75%) were from natural causes
  • a half (50%) of First Nations deaths and 4 in 5 (80%) non-Indigenous deaths were from natural causes (Figure 7.1).

Of the 63 deaths in prison custody in 2021–22 where the manner of death was recorded:

  • one-quarter (25%) were deaths from suicide, or self-inflicted causes
  • there were no deaths from homicide.

Figure 7.1: Deaths in prison custody, by Indigenous identity and cause of death, 2021–22

This grouped vertical bar chart shows the causes of death of the 84 people in prison who died in custody between 2021-22 by Indigenous identity.

Source: Australian Institute of Criminology, 2022.