Health experiences while in prison

Prison may provide an opportunity for people who don't usually access health services to do so; indeed prisoners typically use health services much more extensively in prison than in the community. Over 9 in 10 (91%) prison dischargees reported they could easily see a medical professional if they had a health problem while in prison, and 84% visited the prison clinic at some time while they were in prison. More than half (57%) of all dischargees received treatment for a health condition in prison.

General health changes while in prison

Prison dischargees were asked about changes to their health while in prison. Over three-quarters (78%) of dischargees rated their physical health as generally good or better. Those dischargees most likely to rate their physical health as very good or excellent were men (40% compared with 24% of women) and the youngest dischargees (59% of those aged less than 25, compared with 30% of those aged at least 45). Dischargees generally gave more positive self-assessments of their health than entrants (Table 1)

More than half (51%) of dischargees felt their health had got a little (24%) or a lot (27%) better since being in prison. Just over 1 in 10 (11%) thought their health had got a little or a lot worse. A greater proportion of Indigenous dischargees felt their health had got a lot better compared with non-Indigenous dischargees (37% and 24%, respectively).

Table 1: Prison entrants and dischargees, self-assessed physical health, 2015

  Prison entrants 
Prison entrants 
Per cent
Prison discharges 
Prison discharges 
Per cent
Excellent 90 9 45 10
Very good 259 26 120 27
Good 385 38 178 41
Fair 186 18 58 13
Poor 68 7 15 3
Total 1,011 100 437 100


  1. Dischargee exclude New South Wales as data were not provided for dischargees

  2. Totals include 23 entrants and 21 dischargees for whom self-assessed health status was unknown.

  3. Prison entrant and prison dischargee data should not be directly compared because they do not related to the same individuals. See section 1.4 of The health of Australia's prisoners 2015 for details.

Sources: Entrant and Dischargee form, NPHDC 2015.

Physical activity while in prison

More than half (54%) of all dischargees thought their activity levels had changed while in prison, compared with when they were in the community. About one-third (34%) reported an increase, while 20% reported a decrease, and 39% thought there had been no change. It was more common among younger dischargees to report an increase in physical activity in prison (41% of those aged under 25 compared with 27% of those aged at least 45). A slightly higher proportion of women (38%) than men (33%) reported an increase, as did more Indigenous (41%) than non-Indigenous (32%) dischargees.

Weight changes

Consistent with the changes in physical activity, more than half (55%) of dischargees reported changes in their weight since being in prison. Over 2-in-5 (43%) of dischargees said their weight had increased, and 12% thought it had decreased. An increase in weight may not be related to a decrease in activity, with over one-fifth (22%) of dischargees reporting that they were trying to gain weight while in prison. This was more common among men (23%) than women (13%); younger (36% of those aged less than 25) than older dischargees (14% of those aged at least 45) and among Indigenous (30%) than non-Indigenous dischargees (19%). Almost three-quarters (73%) of those who were trying to gain weight in prison did so (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Prison dischargees, actual and intended weight change, 2015

Vertical bar chart showing (trying to gain weight, not trying to gain weight); weight change (decreased, stayed the same, increased) on the x axis; per cent (0 to 80) on the y axis.

Note: Excludes New South Wales as data were not provided for dischargees.

Sources: Dischargee form, NPHDC 2015.

Further information

See Chapter 8 of The health of Australia's prisoners 2015.