• Print

Australian prisoners experience a range of significant health issues, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, The health of Australia's prisoners 2012, shows prisoners in Australia experienced relatively high rates of chronic disease, communicable disease and mental health issues.

Almost 1 in 3 prison entrants (32%) reported having a chronic disease, with asthma (24%) most commonly reported, and around one-fifth of prison entrants tested positive to both Hepatitis C and B.  These rates are higher for prisoners than for the general community.

'Behaviours associated with risk of poor health outcomes are more common among prison entrants than in the general community,' said AIHW spokesperson Dr Pamela Kinnear.

'On entry to prison, over 4 in 5 prison entrants reported being a smoker; and seven in ten had used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the data collection period.' 

Mental health problems continue to be of concern for prisoners, with over a quarter (26%) of prison entrants referred to mental health services for observation and assessment on reception to prison. A similar proportion (25%) took medications for mental health related conditions while in custody.

Indigenous prison entrants were more likely to report engaging in risky health behaviours prior to their incarceration, but less likely to report a history of mental health issues.

The 2012 report includes, for the first time, indicative data relating to 387 prison dischargees (prisoners expecting to be released in the 4 weeks following the collection).

'This new dischargee information provided some interesting and somewhat contrasting preliminary insights into this population,' Dr Kinnear said.

While almost half (46%) of all dischargees reported a history of mental health issues, 27% reported that their mental health became 'a lot better' while in prison. Also, 37% of dischargees reported their health became 'a lot better' in prison, although over half (57%) reported that their weight had increased during this time.

Indigenous prison dischargees were more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to report an increase in physical activity while in prison (46% compared with 33%) and report that their health was a little or a lot better (74% and 49%) since entering prison.

'More information about these preliminary trends may become available over time as data collection about dischargees improves,' Dr Kinnear said.

The report excludes Western Australian prisons, as that jurisdiction did not participate in the 2012 data collection.

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 24 July 2013

Further information: Dr Pamela Kinnear, AIHW, tel. (02) 02 6249 5096, mob. 0421 600 377

Full publication: The health of Australia's prisoners 2012