Adults in Australia who commit or allegedly commit crimes are managed by the criminal justice system. There are 115 custodial correctional facilities across Australia (SCGRSP, 2021). On 30 June 2020, there were 41,060 adult prisoners in custody (ABS 2020b). Australia has 9 legal systems, 1 for each state and territory and 1 for the Commonwealth. While the criminal justice systems in each jurisdiction are similar, they remain separate. Therefore, laws, penalties and arrangements for administering justice differ across state and territory boundaries (ABS, 1997).

Impact of COVID-19 on adult prisoners data

In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, social distancing measures were introduced in Australia in mid-March 2020. While correctional facilities and other places of custody, courts or tribunals were considered essential services (Prime Minister of Australia 2020), COVID-19 still had a substantial impact on the operations of courts. At the time of writing, the extent of the impact is not fully understood and may differ between jurisdictions (Judicial College of Victoria 2020). Simialrly, outbreaks of the delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021 are likely to have similar impacts to those seen in 2020.


Over the decade to 2020, Australia’s prison population increased in both number and as a proportion of the population. Despite a slight drop recently, the average daily prison population grew from 29,700 at 30 June 2010 to 41,060 at 30 June 2020. During the same period, the rate of prisoners increased from 175 to 202 per 100,000 adults (Figure 1). The most common offences for prisoners in Australia as at 30 June 2020 were acts intended to cause injury (23%), illicit drug offences (15%) and sexual assault and related offences (14%) (ABS 2020b). 


This figure shows the adult imprisonment rate over time, from 2009–10 to 2019–20. It shows a steady rise from 175 in 2009–10 to 202 per 100,000 adults in 2019–20.


When comparing the 2020 prison population to the general adult population, prisoners were:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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).


This figure shows the highest level of educational attainment reported by prison entrants in 2018. It shows that 15% had Year 8 or below, 17% had Year 9, 29% had Year 10, 16% had Year 11, 19% had Year 12 and 2% had either no schooling or their education level was unknown.

Income support

Unemployment is linked with poor psychosocial outcomes. This includes mental health issues, alcohol and other drug use disorders, and criminal offending (Fergusson et al. 2014).

Most (78%) prison dischargees in 2018 were expecting to receive some form of financial assistance from Centrelink after release (Figure 3). Almost 1 in 4 (23%) expected to receive income support (including Disability Support Pension) and a further 28% a crisis payment. Another 26% expected to receive both payments.


This figure shows the source of income prison dischargees expect to receive following release from prison. It shows that 23% expected to receive an income support payment including the disability support pension, 28% expected to receive a crisis payment and 26% expected to receive both a crisis and income support payment. For 12% of discharges their income source was unknown and 10% had no source of income post release.

Where do I go for more information?

See Prisoners for more on this topic.

For more information on prisoners in Australia, see:


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