When comparing the 2020 prison population to the general adult population, prisoners were:
- far more likely to be male—more than 9 in 10 (92%) adult prisoners were male, compared with 5 in 10 (50%) of the general adult population (ABS 2020a, 2020b)
- more than 1 in 4 (29%) of the adult prison population were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, compared with just 3.3% of the general adult population (ABS 2018, 2020b) (see Indigenous community safety)
- younger—2 in 3 (65%) prisoners were under 40, compared with about 2 in 5 (40%) in the general adult population (ABS 2020a, 2020b).
July 2020 saw the release of The National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Target 10 of the new agreement aims to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in the criminal justice system. The target is to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in incarceration by at least 15 per cent by 2031 (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2020).
Almost 3 in 4 (73%) prison entrants had been in prison before, and almost half (45%) of prison entrants had been in prison within the previous 12 months (AIHW 2019).
Prisoners have higher levels of mental health problems, risky alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, illicit drug use, chronic disease and communicable diseases than the general population (AIHW 2013). This means they have significant and complex health and welfare needs, often long term or chronic. The health of prisoners is sufficiently poorer than that of the general community, and prisoners are often considered to be ‘old’ at age 50–55 (Williams et al. 2014).
Since 2009, the AIHW has run the National Prisoner Health Survey, over a 2-week period every 3 years. The 2018 National Prisoner Health Survey is the most recent survey, with the next edition scheduled for 2022. In the 2018 survey, just under 1 in 3 (30%) prison entrants reported a history of one or more selected chronic conditions (asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and/or cancer) (AIHW 2019). These conditions must be managed while they are in prison.
In 2018, 2 in 5 (40%) prison entrants reported a previous diagnosis of a mental health disorder, including alcohol and drug misuse. Female prison entrants (65%) were more likely than male prison entrants (36%) to report a history of a mental health condition. Non-Indigenous prison entrants (44%) were also more likely to report a history of a mental health condition than Indigenous prison entrants (33%) (AIHW 2019).
2 in 5 (40%) prison entrants reported a previous diagnosis of a mental health disorder, including alcohol and drug misuse (AIHW 2019).
Entering and leaving prison can be highly stressful for those in the prison system. The experience of being in prison, the prison environment, relationships with other prisoners, family, housing and employment, as well as alcohol and other drug use may all be potential causes of concern and distress for prisoners.
Prison entrants and dischargees were asked about their recent psychological distress levels, and about their perceived reasons for any distress. Just over 1 in 4 (26%) prison entrants scored high or very high levels of psychological distress, with female prison entrants more than twice as likely to score high or very high levels (52%) when compared with male prison entrants (22%).
The ability to gain and maintain employment is key to successful reintegration of former prisoners into the community post release. Many prisoners, particularly Indigenous prisoners, have complex and sometimes traumatic personal histories and experiences which remain following release from prison and make employment difficult (COAG 2016).
More than half (54%) of prison entrants reported they were unemployed during the 30 days before prison (AIHW 2019).
Prisoners come from a group who already face difficulties in gaining employment. They generally have low levels of education, low socioeconomic position, high levels of drug and alcohol misuse, high levels of mental health issues, and poor work histories . Imprisonment adds to this mix, making it even more difficult for prisoners to find a job, particularly for those who have been in prison for longer than 6 months (Ramakers et al. 2014).
Fewer than 1 in 4 (22%) prison dischargees reported they had paid employment organised to start within 2 weeks of release from prison (AIHW 2019).
Education is a recognised social determinant of health, with lower levels of education associated with poorer health (Mitrou et al. 2014). People in prison have lower levels of educational attainment and higher levels of learning difficulties and learning disabilities than people in the general community (AIHW 2015; Kendall & Hopkins 2019). Lower levels of educational attainment are associated with poorer employment opportunities and outcomes and unemployment is a risk factor for incarceration and for reoffending after release (Baldry et al. 2018).
Prison entrants were asked about the highest level of schooling they had completed and qualifications they attained other than school.
Almost 2 in 3 (63%) prison entrants had an education level of Year 8 or below (AIHW 2019).
In 2018, prison entrants were more likely than the general population (aged 15–64) to have had an education level of Year 10 or below (63% compared with 19%) (AIHW 2019 and ABS 2020c). Of prison entrants, 15% had completed Year 8 or below as their highest level of education completed. A total of 2% had no formal schooling.
Prison entrants were less likely than the general population (19% compared with 64%) to report they had completed the equivalent of Year 12 (Figure 2 and ABS 2020c).