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Prison figures tell tale of lament for taxpayers

Prison figures tell tale of lament for taxpayers

By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia

A year ago, there were about 43,000 people in Australia’s prisons, up more than 50% on a decade ago and rising at three times the increase in in the Australian population.

About 85% are of those in jail are men, with a median age of 33, and 90% of prisoners were born in Australia.

Some 38% are Indigenous, though Indigenous people make up less than 3% of the population, meaning they are imprisoned ta 12-13 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

Indigenous women go to jail at an even more alarmingly high rate, at 35 times the rate of imprisonment of all women in Australia.

Of the 43,000 people in jail, one-third (32%) were on remand – that is, in jail but not convicted or awaiting sentence. CLA says that high number is a result of past “law-n’order” election campaigns, and an accompanying unwillingness to increase funding in the legal/court system.

As well, virtually no effort goes into better coordinating police-court-prison system coordination and management to reduce costs.

Photo: Double-bunked at Wolston Prison in Queensland – ABC photo

“If we could cut the prison population by a quarter, we could save billions of dollars a year to spend on community priorities,” CLA’s CEO Bill Rowlings said. “It would not take very much to change the system to cut prison numbers by 25% – we could do it in two-to-three years.

“Basically, Australia’s legal system doesn’t deliver timely justice, even when it does deliver justice, which is about 95% of the time,” Rowlings said.

“With ABS figures showing each prisoner costs taxpayers more than $300 a day – over $100,000 each each – you’d think governments would realise that courts need more staff and funding to keep remand prisoners to a minimum.

“By the way, juvenile detention can cost double that much for each kid, some $500-600 a day.”

There are about 65,000 Australians who cycle through prison each year, so they make up a sizeable cohort of the population, which is why health and welfare authorities take a close interest in them.

Nearly 2 in 5 (38%) of prison entrants had children who depended on them for the children’s basic needs.

The findings are part of the 5th National Prisoner Health Data Collection, conducted in 2018 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and released on 30 May 2019.

Most people (73%) entering prison had been in prison before. This was especially so for Indigenous people, who were nearly twice as likely to have been inside previously. Most prisoners are serving sentences under five years in length (62%).

About 2 in 5 prisoners report a history of mental health problems, and the situation is worse for women (65% c.f. 36% for men).

Almost 2 in 5 (38%) male dischargees, and almost half (46%) of female dischargees, reported an improvement in their mental health and well-being after their term in prison.

Mental health conditions, particularly severe conditions, are over-represented in the prison population. For example, the prevalence of psychosis in a London prison population was found to be more than 20 times that of the general community, and almost 70% of people in prison had more than one mental health disorder (Bebbington et al. 2017).

Many prisoners suffer from ongoing head trauma

In an extraordinary finding that mirrors new discoveries in high-impact sports, like football, in Australia almost 1 in 3 (31%) of prison entrants reported a history of a head injury resulting in loss of consciousness at some stage in their lives. That’s nearly double the equivalent rate in the general community.

One in 3 of those reporting a history said they still experienced symptoms from the injury (which means about 10% of prisoners suffer ongoing head injury problems). Another surprise was that women experience slightly more such head trauma than men.

About 1 in 3 people entering prison have a chronic physical health problem; 1 in 5 have hep C. Prisoners do not get Medicare of PBS support – the states and territories fund almost all the services are available. The federal government has subsidised hep C treatment for prisoners since 2016, when it agreed that the prison population was a priority group: studies showed the rate of Hep C infection soared to about 50 times higher among inmates than it was in the general population around 2005.

Three-quarters of prisoners are smokers, The vast majority use drugs (74% women, 64% men in the previous 12 months).

About 1 in 6 complete a qualification while inside.

More than half (54%) of those released from prison expect to be homeless, and nearly 80% will go on to Centrelink payments.

Old when they’re 55

The health of people in prison is much poorer compared with the general community, the AIHW says. “People in prison are often considered to be elderly at the age of 50–55 (compared with 65 and over in the general community).”

Almost two-thirds (65%) of prison entrants had used illicit drugs in the previous year, four times the rate in the general community. Ice and marijuana were the most used drugs.

One in 6 prisoners discharged said they had used illicit drugs in prison.

The number of people in Australia’s prisons rose by 56%, from almost 28,000 people in prison in 2008 to about 43,000 in 2018 (ABS 2018b). Over the same period, the general Australian population rose by 17% (ABS 2018c).

The imprisonment rate in Australia rose from 170 people in prison per 100,000 adults in the general population on 30 June 2008, to 221 per 100,000 on 30 June 2018 (Figure 1.1) (ABS 2018c).

During 2017–18, prisons in Australia were operating at 116% of design capacity, meaning that there were more people in prison than the prisons were designed to accommodate (this excludes New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, which did not provide data) (Productivity Commission 2019).

Some good news is that 9 in 10 prisoners, when discharged, reported their physical health had improved or stayed the same when in prison. More than half (54%) said their physical health had improved, and Indigenous prisoners in particular appeared to benefit in health terms from being in prison.

About 115 people die in prison each year.

Data for this 2019 AIHW report came from various sources over a two-week period: 803 people (and exit data from 335) who filled in forms; 7747 people visiting a prison health clinic filled in a survey; and 8273 people who received prescription medicine on a particular day also did so. Some 62 of 70 prison health clinics in public and private prisons in Australia completed a survey (NSW did not take part in that aspect, and in other aspects, of the data survey). Periodic detention centres and court cells administered by corrective services, juvenile detention centres, immigration detention centres, and secure psychiatric facilities were excluded from the study.

– AIHW 2019: ‘The Health of Australia’s prisoners 2018’, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ISBN 978-1-76054-531-4 (Print) AIHW:

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