The new Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report The health of Australia’s prisoners 2015 shows that prisoners in Australia have typically experienced significant disadvantage. Rates of education attainment and employment before prison are low. Many people in prison have histories of mental illness, alcohol and drug use and homelessness. Many also leave prison at risk of homelessness and with ongoing physical and mental health conditions.
The 2015-16 Victorian Budget showed the recidivism rate in Victoria has risen to 45 per cent, meaning many people cycle in and out of the justice system. This was reflected in the AIHW survey, which found just over two-thirds of people entering and leaving prison had previously been in prison or juvenile detention. Almost one-half (45 per cent) of male entrants had been in prison 3 or more times.
Education and employment
The AIHW report finds many people before entering prison had low rates of education attainment and many had been unemployed. Nearly one-half of prison entrants were unemployed in the month prior to imprisonment with about one-half of those people reporting they actively looked for work.
Around one-third of prisoners had not completed Year 10. Only 15 per cent had completed Year 12. Aboriginal prisoners had lower levels of educational attainment than non-Aboriginal prisoners.
Only 9 per cent of people discharged from prison completed a trade or other qualification while they were incarcerated, highlighting an opportunity to improve education and rehabilitation outcomes for prisoners.
Secure housing after discharge helps reduce the risk of reoffending and returning to prison. However the risk of homelessness is high among people leaving prison with over 30 per cent of prisoners being discharged expected to be homeless.
More positively, this is a reduction from the 2012 report, where 43 per cent of prisoners expected to be homeless.
Health and wellbeing
Prisons are one of the unhealthiest places to be, with high rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol issues and infectious diseases. Unfortunately the 2015 report on the health of Australia’s prisoners reveals that many prisoners continue to experience poor health.
About one half of people entering prison had a mental health diagnosis (including alcohol and drug misuse) and one in three prisoners recorded high or very high levels of psychological distress on entrance to prison.
It was encouraging that 41 per cent of prisoners, when discharged, thought their mental health had improved while in prison; another 44 per cent reported no change.
Rates of bloodborne viruses are higher in prison than in the general community with 31 per cent of prisoners testing positive to Hepatitis C. Rates were higher among women and people who reported injecting drug use. Despite these high rates, over 30 per cent of people discharged were not tested for bloodborne viruses while in prison.
Despite significant progress in reducing smoking rates in the general community, smoking rates remain high among prisoners with74 per cent of prison entrants and 73 per cent of prison discharges being current smokers. On a positive note, 50 per cent of prison entrants who currently smoke reported they would like to quit.
The report shows lower rates of smoking and intention to smoke after release in prisons with a total smoking ban in place. As of July 2015, smoking bans are being implemented in Victorian prisons.
Two-thirds of prison entrants engaged in illicit drug activity in the year before imprisonment. Rates were higher among non-Aboriginal prisoners. 50 per cent of entrants reported using methamphetamines, up significantly from 37 per cent in 2012.
For the first time, the AIHW collected data on people entering prison with disability. 30 per cent of people entering prison reported they experienced long-term health conditions or disability that limits activities or restricts participation in education or employment.
Future policy directions
To promote prisoner rehabilitation, cut crime and improve community safety, VCOSS is calling on governments to invest in services that address the underlying causes of crime, including the mental illness and trauma, unemployment, homelessness and drug and alcohol use so clearly experienced by so many prisoners.
This justice reinvestment approach is a more cost-effective, efficient and sustainable alternatives to locking up more disadvantaged Victorians for longer periods.