Why is it important?:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have historically experienced higher rates of arrest and incarceration than non-Indigenous Australians (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991). Prisons have a significant over representation of people with mental health problems, substance abuse problems, hearing loss, learning difficulties and a history of physical and sexual abuse (Levy 2005). Indigenous prisoners suffer greater rates of ill-health and injury compared with the Indigenous population generally (Hobbs et al. 2006).
The effects of prison custody persist after release. A study in WA and NSW (Kinner et al. 2011) found that released prisoners have an increased risk of death compared with the general population, with a disproportionate number dying within the first four weeks of release. This risk is greater for Indigenous Australians. Imprisonment impacts on family, children and the broader community. It increases stress, affects relationships and has adverse employment and financial consequences.
Findings:As at 30 June 2011, there were 7,655 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in the National Prison Census, representing 26% of total prisoners. After adjusting for differences in age structure of the two populations, the imprisonment rate for Indigenous Australians was 14 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The imprisonment rate for Indigenous Australians has increased by 62% since 2000 and the gap has widened.
In 2011, the median age of adult Indigenous prisoners was 31 years compared with 35 years for non-Indigenous prisoners. Indigenous men made up 26% of the total male prisoner population. Indigenous women were also over represented in the prison population, representing 31% of the female prisoner population. Of all Indigenous prisoners 92% were male. The highest rates of imprisonment of Indigenous Australians were reported in WA and the lowest rates in Tasmania.
The median length of sentence for Indigenous prisoners as at 30 June 2011 was lower than for non-Indigenous prisoners (24 months compared with 47 months) (ABS 2011b). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely to be in prison with a charge related to acts intended to cause injury (32%) than other prisoners (15%). They are less likely than other prisoners to be in prison for illicit drug offences (compared with 15%) and homicide (6% compared with 11%). Three quarters (74%) of Indigenous prisoners had a prior adult imprisonment under sentence compared with 48% of non-Indigenous prisoners. Indigenous Australians are also over-represented in police custody.
Data collected by the Australian Institute of Criminology's National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP) show, that over the longer term, rates of deaths in prison custody have declined considerably for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In 2010–11 there were 0.16 deaths per 100 Indigenous Australians in prison custody compared with 0.46 per 100 in 1997–98. Data from 2010–11 indicate that there were 21 deaths of Indigenous Australians in all forms of custody. Eight deaths occurred in police custody, 12 in prison and one in juvenile justice/welfare custody. Nine of these deaths were due to natural causes, six were accidents and four were self-inflicted.
In 2009–10, the rate of Indigenous Australians aged 10–17 years on remand on an average day was 22 times the rate for non-Indigenous youth (245 compared to 11 per 100,000). The majority of those on remand were in the 14–17 year age group. The median period of unsentenced detention was seven days for Indigenous youth compared with three days for non-Indigenous youth. A large proportion of young Indigenous Australians in juvenile justice have a history of a parent in prison (Krieg 2006).
The Health of Australia's Prisoners 2010 (AIHW 2011h) found that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among Indigenous prison entrants was 9% and 6% respectively compared with 7% and 4% for non-Indigenous prisoners. Asthma prevalence was higher for non-Indigenous entrants (27%) compared with Indigenous entrants (13%) as was diagnosis of a mental health disorder (38% verses 23%). A study of prisoners in Qld found that 73% of Indigenous women and 86% of Indigenous men suffered from at least one mental health disorder when the data collection involved a diagnostic interview rather than relying on previously diagnosed conditions (Heffernan et al. 2012).
A study of 134 Indigenous inmates in the NT (13% of the Aboriginal population of NT Correctional Services) found that 94% had significant hearing loss (Vanderpoll et al. 2012). This hearing loss was associated with tinnitus, social difficulties, altercations with others due to misunderstandings and difficulties communicating within the criminal justice system including during hearings. Indigenous prison entrants were more likely to have Year 9 or below as their highest year of school completed compared with the general Indigenous population; and were more likely to be unemployed (AIHW 2011h).
Indigenous prisoners were more likely to be a current daily smoker (74%) compared with the general Indigenous population (47%). A higher proportion of Indigenous prisoners were advised that they were at risk of alcohol-related harm (73%) compared with non-Indigenous prisoners (48%). Illicit drug use was similar for Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners (68% and 65% respectively), but was twice as high as for the general Indigenous population. Top of Page
The 2010 National Prison Entrants' Bloodborne Virus and Risk Behaviour Survey found that 18% of Indigenous prison entrants tested positive hepatitis C compared with 23% of non-Indigenous entrants. In addition, 46% of Indigenous prisoners tested positive for hepatitis compared with 55% of non-Indigenous prisoners (Butler et al. 2011) (see measure 1.12).
In 2008, approximately 48% of Indigenous males aged 15 years and over had been formally charged by the police, 22% had been arrested in the previous 5 years and 6% had been incarcerated in the previous 5 years. Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over who were current daily smokers, engaged in risky/high-risk alcohol consumption in the last 12 months, were unemployed, were renting, were the victim of physical or threatened violence or had experienced at least one stressor in the last 12 months were more likely to have been formally charged, arrested by police or incarcerated in the previous 5 years. Thirteen per cent of Indigenous Australians reported experiencing stressors related to having a family member or friend incarcerated in the last year and 15% reported stressors involving trouble with the police in the last year. A study in NSW found that Indigenous prisoners were nearly twice as likely as non-Indigenous prisoners to have left school before completing Year 10, to have been placed in care as a child, and to report a history of juvenile detention, and 3 times as likely to have had a parent imprisoned during their childhood (Indig et al. 2010).
Implications:Together these statistics show a pattern of higher rates of imprisonment, shorter prison sentences and more returns to prison. The high rate of imprisonment of Indigenous Australians signals problems well beyond those which prisons are designed to resolve. More evidence is needed about effective primary and secondary prevention strategies, pathways into contact with the criminal justice system, factors underpinning the high imprisonment rates and effective tertiary preventions strategies to reduce reoffending (Richards et al. 2011; Beranger et al. 2010). More evidence is also needed on interventions across the prisoner life cycle from arrest, diversion, remand, sentencing, incarceration and release including programs run in prison to address self-esteem, empowerment, grief and healing and post prison programs to rebuild connections with community and culture (Davis et al. 2008). Strategies to address social difficulties related to hearing loss, substance use, low self-esteem, vocational education, opportunities for employment and mental health care require inter sectoral responses working with families and communities.
Some Aboriginal health organisations have developed their own health programs for prisoners and their families (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2007; Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service 2007).
Primary responsibility for criminal justice issues sits with state and territory governments and their Indigenous law and justice programs. The Australian Government also provides funding through the Indigenous Justice Program with priority given to prisoner through care projects. The Australian Government also funds the Indigenous Legal Aid and Policy Reform Program to provide culturally inclusive legal aid services to Indigenous Australians. The network delivers services at 86 permanent sites, court circuits and outreach locations in urban, rural and remote areas in all states and territories. Top of Page
Table 32—People in prison custody by Indigenous status, sex and state/territory 30 June 2011
Indigenous Age standard-ised rate(a)
Non-Indigenous Age standard-ised rate(a)
(a)Number per 100,000 adult population directly age-standardised to 2001 Australian standard population
Source: ABS 2011
Figure 112—Age-standardised rate of persons in prison, by Indigenous status, 2000–2011
Source: AIHW analysis of ABS 2011 dataTop of Page
Figure 113—Rates of young people aged 10–17 years, on remand on an average day, by Indigenous status, 2009–10
(a)WA and NT not included, as data were not available for 2009–10.Top of Page
Source: AIHW 2011, Juvenile Justice in Australia 2009–10
Source: AIHW 2011, Juvenile Justice in Australia 2009–10