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Australian prisoners experience a range of health issues, including high levels of disability, mental health conditions, smoking, alcohol and illicit drug use, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, The health of Australia's prisoners 2015, shows despite health challenges and higher rates of risky health behaviours, many prisoners reported improvements in their health by the time they are released from prison.

'For example, while smoking rates are much higher among prisoners compared with the general population, we have seen some promising results, especially in light of smoking bans, which are being progressively introduced in Australian prisons,' said AIHW spokesperson David Braddock.

The report shows that almost three-quarters (74%) of prisoners were current smokers, with 69% smoking daily.

'On release from those prisons that allowed smoking, about three-quarters (74%) of dischargees currently smoked, and one-in-six (16%) reported smoking more now than they did on entry to prison,' Mr Braddock said.

On release from prisons with smoking bans, dischargees who smoked upon entry to prison were less likely to intend to smoke after release (59%) than those from prisons in which smoking was allowed (73%).

Mental health issues remain a challenge among the Australian prison population, with almost half of prison entrants (49%) reporting having been told by a health professional that they have a mental health disorder, and more than 1 in 4 (27%) reporting currently being on medication for a mental health disorder.

'Of those being released from prison, 41% thought that their mental health had improved since entering prison,' Mr Braddock said.

Just over one-half (51%) of Indigenous dischargees reported that their mental health was either a lot better (22%) or a little better (29%), compared with a combined 38% for non-Indigenous dischargees.

A similar pattern was seen for self-reported physical health. Over half (51%) of dischargees thought their physical health improved while in prison, with Indigenous dischargees more likely than non-Indigenous dischargees to report that their physical health was a lot better since being in prison (37% and 24%, respectively).

For the first time, the report looks at disability among prisoners, showing that almost one-third (30%) of entrants reported a long-term health condition or disability that limited their daily activities and/or affected their participation in education or employment. Among 35-54 year olds, this was more than twice as likely for prison entrants as for those in the general community.

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, 27 November

Further information: Mr David Braddock, AIHW, tel. (02) 6244 1136, mob. 0419 496 770

Full publication: The health of Australia's prisoners 2015