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released: 24 Jul 2013 author: AIHW media release

Prisoners have significant health issues, with high rates of mental health problems, communicable diseases, alcohol misuse, smoking and illicit drug use. 38% of prison entrants have ever been told they have a mental illness, 32% have a chronic condition. 84% are current smokers, but almost half of them would like to quit. 37% of prisoners about to be released said their health was a lot better than when they entered prison.

ISBN 978-1-74249-464-7; Cat. no. PHE 170; 196pp.; $68

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Summary1

The health of Australia's prisoners 2012 is the 3rd report relating to the National Prisoner Health Indicators, which was developed to help monitor the health of prisoners, and to inform and evaluate the planning, delivery and quality of prisoner health services. Included are data from 794 prison entrants, just over 4,000 prisoners who visited the clinic and about 9,000 prisoners who took medication. New in 2012 are indicative data from 387 prison dischargees (prisoners expecting to be released in the 4 weeks following the collection). Entrant and dischargee data are not directly comparable. Data was provided from all states and territories except Western Australia.

Mental health issues

Prisoners in Australia continue to have high rates of mental health related issues. In 2012, 46% of prison dischargees reported having ever been told they have a mental health issue (including alcohol and drug use issues), and 21% of those entering prison were taking mental health related medication. About one-quarter (26%) of prison entrants were referred to mental health services for observation and further assessment following the reception assessment.

One in 5 (20%) of prisoners in custody were taking medications commonly prescribed for mental health related conditions. Around one-quarter (27%) of prison dischargees reported that their mental health changed to become 'a lot better' while in prison; and only 9% reported that their mental health and wellbeing were a little (6%) or a lot (3%) worse since being in prison.

Health behaviours

Prison entrants and dischargees reported engaging in various risky health behaviours including smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol at extreme levels and using illicit drugs. Over 4 out of 5 (84%) entrants reported being a smoker, with almost half (46%) of them saying they would like to quit. Around  one-third (35%) of dischargees said they planned to quit smoking while in prison and just under one-quarter (22%) of them were successful. Over half (54%) of dischargees reported drinking alcohol at risky levels prior  to their current imprisonment but only 12% of dischargees reported having accessed an alcohol  treatment program while in prison. Seven out of 10 (70%) prison entrants reported using drugs illicitly during the previous 12 months. These rates of alcohol and other drug misuse are all substantially higher than in the general community.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison entrants were more likely than non-Indigenous entrants to be current smokers (92% compared  with 83%); and to report risky alcohol consumption (59% and 39%, respectively). Indigenous entrants were more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous entrants (5% compared  with 2%) to report ever having been diagnosed with diabetes, but less likely to have been diagnosed with asthma (18% compared  with 28%) or arthritis (4% and 8%).

Indigenous prison dischargees were more likely than non-Indigenous dischargees to rate the health care they received in prison as excellent (33% and 20%, respectively), to report an increase in physical activity while in prison (46% compared with 33%); and to report that their health had improved to be a little or a lot better (74% and 49%, respectively).

Recommended citation

AIHW 2013. The health of Australia's prisoners 2012. Cat. no. PHE 170. Canberra: AIHW.