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Mental health, poverty, family history and unemployment key factors in incarceration - new report

Giovanni Torre -

More than half of prison entrants have previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and almost half expect to be homeless upon release, the sixth survey on the health of people in Australian prisons has found.

The study also found that 36 per cent (more than one third) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison entrants reported that during their childhood, one or both parents or carers had spent time in prison. For non-Indigenous prisoners the rate was 15 per cent.

42 per cent of prison entrants aged 18–24 had a parent or carer in prison during their childhood.

On Wednesday the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released The health of people in Australia's prisons 2022, which includes information gathered from 73 of 87 prisons across Australia (excluding Victoria) to develop "a comprehensive view of the health, wellbeing and social factors that affect people before, during and after time in prison".

Most prison dischargees surveyed for the report said they were satisfied with the health care they received in prison.

AIHW spokesperson Amanda Donges noted that "many people in prison come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with poorer physical and mental health outcomes than the general population".

"They are less likely to have accessed health care services in the community, and more likely to have a history of risky behaviours that can affect health and wellbeing," she said.

Nearly one-third (31 per cent) of prison entrants had an education level of Year 9 or below.

In the 30 days before entering prison, more than four in 10 (43 per cent) were homeless, nearly half (46 per cent) were unemployed and only one in 20 (5.1 per cent) were studying.

Nearly half (48 per cent) of prison dischargees expected to be homeless on release from prison, with 45 per cent planning to sleep in short term or emergency accommodation and 2.8 per cent expecting to sleep rough. Only 52 per cent of prison dischargees had their own stable accommodation arranged.

More than half of surveyed prison entrants (51 per cent) reported a previous diagnosis of a mental health condition, including alcohol and other drug use disorders.

Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of prison entrants reported using illicit drugs at least once during the previous 12 months.

Ms Donges said the majority of people surveyed reported access to a range of health care and other services in prison, with 72 per cent of prison dischargees rating the healthcare they received in the prison clinic as good or excellent.

80 per cent reported their physical health improved or stayed the same while in prison, and 81 per cent reported their mental health improved or stayed the same during incarceration.

However, prison entrants and dischargees were significantly less likely to report they were in very good health than the general community.

Adults aged 18–44 in the general community (65 percent) were about 1.5 times more likely than prison entrants (42 per cent) and prison dischargees (41 per cent) of the same age to rate their health as very good or excellent.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dischargees were more likely to rate their physical health as very good or excellent (45 per cent) than non-Indigenous dischargees (37 per cent).

There are more than 62,000 receptions into, and releases out of, Australia's prisons each year.

Information for the study was gathered from 73 of 87 prisons nationwide (excluding Victoria) for the 2022 National Prisoner Health Data Collection. Data were collected from 371 people entering prison during a 2-week period, and 431 who were due to be released during the data collection period or in the following 4 weeks. Information was also collected about 4,500 people who visited the prison health clinic and another 7,100 people who received medications while in prison.

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