Why is the health of people in prison important?

A large proportion of prison stays are temporary. On 30 June 2022, just over one-third (37%, or 14,900) of the 40,600 people in prison in Australia were on remand while awaiting trial or sentencing. The median time those who were sentenced could expect to serve was 2.2 years (ABS 2023b). This means that people are constantly entering and being released from prison. Once released from prison, most people return to live in the community. With more than 62,000 receptions into and releases out of prison each year, the health of people in prison is a part of public health (ABS 2023a).

National and international standards guide the provision of health care to people in prison. In May 2015, the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted the updated United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the ‘Mandela Rules’ (United Nations 2015). This update of the original 1955 rules detailed the provision of health care to people in prison, and included:

  • principles of equivalence (to the community standard)
  • independence
  • multidisciplinary care (including psychological and psychiatric care)
  • dental care
  • continuity of care into the community on release (United Nations 2015).

In Australia, the Corrective Services Administrators’ Council published revised Guiding Principles for Corrections in Australia – Revised 2018 (CSAC 2018). These guidelines specifically reference health-care provision in prisons, including:

  • equivalence of care for physical and mental health
  • access to primary and specialist health professionals
  • assessment on entry to identify needs for, and access to, health and disability services
  • continuity of care between prison and the community (CSAC 2018).