High levels of mental illness, substance use and communicable diseases among Australian prisoners

Australian prisoners have significant health issues, with high levels of mental health problems, communicable diseases, smoking, risky alcohol consumption and illicit drug use, according to a new report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The health of Australia's prisoners 2009 is the first national report to examine prisoner health in Australia. It draws on several important data sources including the AIHW census of public and private prisons, conducted for the first time in 2009. It also draws on the annual deaths in custody report, and the most recent available study on bloodborne viruses in prison entrants.

The report highlights a number of significant health issues. It shows that rates of chronic conditions, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and communicable diseases such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are significantly higher among prisoners than among the general population.

'Of particular concern is the number of people who enter prison with mental health issues and high levels of psychological distress,' said Ingrid Johnston of the AIHW's Social and Indigenous Group.

The report shows that almost 40% of prisoners reported having had a mental health disorder at some time; over 30% were referred to prison mental health services, and almost 20% were taking medication for a mental-health-related condition at the time they entered prison.

A history of head injury was also common among prisoners. Over 40% reported having had a blow to the head resulting in a loss of consciousness at some time in their lives.

'Risky health behaviours were far more prevalent among prisoners than among the general community,' Ms Johnston said.

Over 80% of prisoners were current smokers; and during the 12 months prior to entering prison more than 70% had used illicit drugs, and over half had consumed alcohol at risky levels.

'Imprisonment does, however, present an opportunity for health interventions and treatment,' Ms Johnston said.

'An estimated 50,000 prisoners are released from prison each year in Australia, so the health of prisoners is significant for the health of the wider Australian community.'

The report also includes information on educational attainment, the use of health services, the health of Indigenous prisoners and comparisons with the general community and internationally. The 2009 report provides a baseline to monitor prisoner health over time.


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