Prisoner health in Australia

The saying goes if you do the crime, you do the time. But should this mean that you give up your right to health and wellbeing while in prison? This is the state that prison health in Australia is said to be in…

Submitted 2/09/2008 By msav89 Views 3119 Comments 0 Updated 18/09/2008

Photographer : Gipic

What’s the issue?

Prisoners in Australia face high incidences of physical and psychological health problems associated with their lifestyle and circumstances. There is a concern that these problems are not being addressed by the prison system and the wider health system. In Australia, relatively little information has been collected about what causes prison-related health problems. As a result, health services both inside and outside the prison system cannot adequately facilitate the special needs of prisoners.

Health problems particular to the prison environment include tobacco related illnesses, health problems related to overcrowding, mental illness and Hepatitis C. In female prisons, there is a high incidence of cervical cancer because many of the inmates have been involved in the sex worker industry.

On the other side of the coin, many argue that the health care provided by prisons is way better than what most prisoners would receive in the outside world. All prisoners receive full health checks by medical officers when they enter prison, and there is access to medication and treatment. Some bigger prisons even have their own mini-hospital to look after sick inmates. For homeless prisoners, conditions seem to improve because they have access to shelter and food. Prisoners addicted to illicit drugs are provided with some support and assistance. But is this good enough?

Who does it affect?

In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated that 1 in 600 adults were part of the prison population—and this number has only been increasing since then. According to the ABS, 93 per cent of inmates are male, of whom most are unemployed, poorly educated, suffer psychiatric disorders and have problems with substance abuse. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were found to be imprisoned at 12 times the rate of the non-Indigenous population. As they already suffer from poor health levels compared to other Australian communities, this puts them at even greater risk.

With all this talk about prisoners, spare a thought for those who are also thrown into the whirlwind of corrective services—the prison officers. Brian Kelly, a security commander from the High Risk Management Unit at Goulburn (‘Supermax’), said that the prison is ‘a very difficult environment to work in’, especially when investigating murders within the walls.

Prison officer Larissa Jackson encourages people to think of prisoners as normal human beings. ‘They’re like everybody; they have their good and bad days. I’ve been called everything under the sun. Other days, they will apologise to me for swearing or saying something inappropriate around me’.

Where is it happening?

There are 120 correctional facilities in Australia which are under the command of state and territory authorities. Each department implements necessary means to best manage the prison system in their district, however the issue of prisoner health inequalities is still a problem all over Australia.

The most famous correctional facility is the HRMU (High Risk Management Unit) in Goulburn, NSW (nicknamed ‘HARM U’ by inmates). This prison houses 34 of the most notorious criminals in Australia, from convicted killers to rapists. In October 2007, letters alleging prisoner abuse were smuggled out, detailing problems like a severe lack of fresh air, extremely cold cells in winter and racial segregation. In 2006, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties lodged a submission into the Department of Corrective Services calling for the HRMU to be closed and replaced by a more humane facility.

What’s being done?

In October 2007, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a report called ‘Prisoner health in Australia—Contemporary information collection and a way forward’. This report advocated the need for integrated health care projects and highlighted the necessity for research to improve the health and welfare of prisoners. The Centre for Health Research in Criminal Justice is another proactive service in NSW. It has been around since 2003 and is the only organisation in the world devoted to the study of prisoner health issues.

Many organisations beyond the prison walls also feel strongly about the issues faced by the prison population. Justice Action Australia are prisoners and ex-prisoners, lawyers, academics, victims of crime, and community members who provide access and free exchange of information to educate society in a bid to dispel harmful stereotypes and shine some light on to the criminal justice system. ‘Big Dave’ (former prisoner and community advocate), who runs and the ‘Behind the Walls’ project, aims to give a voice to prisoners and draw attention to the issues that affect prisoners in the criminal justice system.

For more insight, tune into the radio program ‘Jailbreak’, that airs at 6pm on Tuesdays on 2SER 107.3. This program provides an avenue for prisoners and their family members to express their concerns and convey messages in a healthy and constructive manner. Valuable advice and information handy for former and current inmates is readily shared in this community.

This page was updated by kate elise

How do I know this?

AIHW: Belcher, J. and Al-Yaman, F. (2007). ‘Prisoner health in Australia: contemporary information collection and a way forward. Cat. No. PHE 94. Canberra: AIHW. Available from  

Butler, T., Allnut, S. & Yang, B. (2007) ‘Mentally ill prisoners in Australia have poor physical health’, International Journal of Prisoner Health, 3(2), pp. 99-100.

Centre for Health Research in Criminal Justice

Eckstein, G., Levy, M. & Butler, T. (2007) ‘Can health inequalities be addressed? An assessment of Prisoner Health Services in New South Wales, Australia’, International Journal of Prisoner Health, 3(1), pp. 69-76.

Justice Action Australia

Justice Health New South Wales  


Masters, C. (2005) '"Supermax" Four Corners goes inside Supermax, Australia’s toughest jail, home to killers and suspected terrorists’, Four Corners, 07 November 2005. Available from  

Mercer, N. ‘Notorious criminals allege abuse at Supermax’, The Sunday Telegraph, October 07, 2007. Available from,23599,22544979-421,00.html

New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties