Australia holds 37,109 prisoners. The prison population increased 7% between 2014 and 2015. All states and territories are concerned, although Western Australia and the Northern Territory have historically recorded higher imprisonment rates.
As prisoner population grows, overcrowding is becoming an issue. 2015 reports show that there is a 112% occupancy rate in New South Wales and 130% in Queensland. Overcrowding figures are potentially higher than reported, with additional beds added to cells not always included in official figures.
Many Australian legislatures and courts have rejected the definition of prison overcrowding and rejected proposed solutions to the problem. Imprisonment is always an option at the courts discretion and as a result, alternatives to imprisonment are not always considered in sentencing.
Widespread public fear of criminal activity has led to harsher sentencing for minor crimes. Increases in maximum penalties have been the trend. This is sometimes viewed as an attempt to enforce a culture of ‘zero tolerance’ for crime. The prison population rate in 2015 is 196 prisoners per 100,000 of the adult population.
In June 2014, 9,264 prisoners were identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Despite representing approximately 2% of the Australian population aged 18 years and over, they accounted for 27% of the total prison population. This percentage varied between states from 8% in Victoria to 86% in the Northern Territory.
On 30 June 2015, about 27,4% of prisoners were being held on remand.
The number of female prisoners increased by 70.6% between 2005 and 2015 (compared with a 41% increase in male prisoners) and by 11% (287 prisoners) between 2014-2015. There are 2,876 women imprisoned in Australia.
Studies suggest that the number of female remand prisoners in the state of New South Wales is increasing. Women are also serving longer sentences for minor crimes rather than being granted suspended or community sentences.
Women are held separately from men in all correctional facilities. Adults and juvenile female offenders (under 18 years) are also held in separately.
Each Australian state and territory applies their own frameworks for pregnant women and mothers. The standard guidelines are for women prisoners to be held with their children and that ‘well structured programmes’ ensure the ‘interests of the children are paramount’. The age for children allowed to reside with their mothers on a full-time basis in prison varies between states and territories, but it is usually up to four to six years old.
Support is given to mothers and young children including regular health checks, respite care for mothers, playgroup services and social work support. The quality of services provided is not always consistent and some programs may be unavailable to some mothers.
For children not residing with their mothers in prison, limited visitation and difficulties accessing the prison due to distance can place a strain on mother-child relationships.
Many women in Australian prisons have suffered physical and sexual abuse prior to entering prison. 80% of women in jail have a history of sexual abuse according to a report from the Federal Government’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault.
Recent studies show sexual coercion and abuse inside Australian women’s prisons to be a ‘disappearing phenomenon’.
Both male and female prison officers work in women’s correctional facilities. Male guards are not permitted to enter a prisoner’s cell without the presence of another officer. All frisk and strip-searches must be conducted by female staff.
Juveniles are legally defined as those aged between 10 and 17 years (with the exception of Queensland where the definition is 10-16 years). Legislation recognises that juveniles are more vulnerable than adults. They are treated less harshly and held in different facilities.
On an average day, 1 in every 466 youths is under justice supervision. The majority are boys and 85% of juveniles under supervision are in the community, with the remainder being held in detention.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander juveniles are significantly over-represented in the youth justice system, with 43% of the juvenile prison population belonging to this group1. The correctional system and facilities require substantial reforms to conform to international standards and UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child.
Australia’s minimum age as a child of criminal responsibility, 10 years, does not comply with the Conventions, within which the minimum age is 12 years. Other areas of non-compliance include: the minimum age of criminal responsibility as an adult in Queensland being 17 years rather than 18 years and the mandatory sentencing of young offenders in Western Australia under certain circumstances.
States and territories are responsible for providing rehabilitative services for juvenile offenders. In New South Wales for example, this includes specialised educational, health and spiritual services. Case management, counselling and job training programs are also provided.
“A brighter tomorrow, keeping indigenous kids in the community and out of detention in Australia”, Amnesty International Report 2015 ↩
The majority of foreign prisoners are from New Zealand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom.
Foreign prisoners may face many problems in Australian prisons, including language and cultural barriers. These barriers may prevent foreign prisoners accessing healthcare support or activities and can lead to many prisoners feeling isolated. More culturally appropriate health care and educational programs are needed.
In addition to the 6,481 foreign prisoners in corrective services, 30,895 immigration detainees currently are being held in offshore detention facilities. Australia has been internationally criticised for its treatment of asylum seekers. Thousands of refugees have been transferred into offshore detention facilities in Nauru and Manus Island since 2001. These facilities are outside Australia’s jurisdiction and not subject to Australian laws and policies. Criticism of the government’s hard-line approach to immigration issues is fuelled by the appalling conditions detainees are held in, with reports indicating living standards in these facilities reflect ‘torture-like’ facilities.
Ethnic or religious minorities
The Australian Bureau of Statistics does not provide figures on minority ethnic or religious groups. However, they do provide the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders imprisoned. They account for 29% of the New South Wales prison population, 23% in Queensland and 21% in Western Australia.
Reasons for these high rates of Indigenous imprisonment include the recurring implications of the disastrous ‘stolen generation’: a loss of cultural identity resulting from a separation from their cultural land which plays a significant role in their spirituality, police brutality and significant social and economic disadvantages.
Muslims are also over-represented, 9.3% of the New South Wales state prison population compared with 3.2% of the wider New South Wales population1. In Victoria, 8% of prisoners are Muslim, compared with 2.9% of the Victorian population (Corrections Victoria).
13 ‘extreme high-risk’ prisoners at Goulburn Supermax prison have been banned from speaking Arabic when communicating with the outside world. The ban was made in response to terrorism concerns and coincided with plans to recruit more moderate Imams into the prison system.
Transgender individuals are subject to high levels of violence in prison, particularly sexual violence. Many do not receive the medical treatment that they were receiving prior to incarceration and most are denied hormone treatments.
Prison policies and discrimination acts regarding identification and protection of LGBT prisoners are governed by individual state policies. For example, NSW has a comprehensive self-identification policy, Victorian policies are underway and Western Australia has a basic policy based on social approach methods to diversity.
The Australian Institute of Criminology considers individuals aged 50 years and over to be elderly. Prisoners aged 65 or over accounted for only 2% (708 prisoners) of the total prisoner population in 2014.
Elderly prisoners suffer higher rates of physical and mental health problems and are more vulnerable to victimisation than younger prisoners.
Correctional facilities are addressing these problems by creating ‘nursing home prisons’, prison hospices and special needs units. Prisons are also retraining of staff and altering services to better meet the needs of the elderly prison population.
The sick and the disabled
Mental health issues are common among prisoners. One in three people entering the prison system have a history of mental health disorder and 27% are currently taking mental health related medication according to the Australian Health Institute1.
Mentally ill persons in prison were often ‘managed’ by segregation or solitary confinement, often for very long periods. This confinement can seriously exacerbate mental illness and cause significant psychological harm.
Mental health treatments include visiting psychiatrists, mental health nurses, videoconferencing, telephone advice, etc. Western Australia opened the first Disability Justice Centre in August 2015 to provide ‘civilised’ treatment for prisoners with a mental health illness. The centre holds a maximum of 10 people.
12% of the prison population has an intellectual disability, and up to 30% have a borderline intellectual disability according to a 2013 study (Baldry).
Australian Health Institute reports that one in three prisoners have a chronic health condition. Half the prisoners surveyed reported that their health had improved during imprisonment. Adult and juvenile offenders are screened for any health problems on admission to prisons. Provision of healthcare varies between states but has a rehabilitative focus with services designed to regulate prisoner mental and physical health during imprisonment and after release. In New South Wales for example, Justice Health runs a specific program to treat reoffenders with a reliance on drugs or alcohol.