NAME: Anna Robertson
TUTOR: Michelle Newcomb


Whether incarceration is dependant on an individual's socioeconomic status & the subsequent health effects of imprisonment in Australia.


World News Report (May, 2012)

This YouTube clip of a World News report released on 2nd May 2012, details the inherent link between poverty and incarceration rates in relation to indigenous Australians. It focuses on the environmental factors that can contribute to offending behaviours, particularly amongst youths, and the gross over-representation of indigenous people in the criminal justice system at the present time. The report also divulges in to the latest campaign aimed at reducing indigenous incarceration rates- The Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People.


The public health issue that this artefact represents is the association between growing up in a low socioeconomic environment and the increased likelihood of offending and subsequent incarceration, the link between poverty and crime. There is a dire need to address juvenile delinquency in communities where ending up in prison is not uncommon, as statistics suggest that individuals who are exposed to antisocial behaviours, such as substance abuse and crime, will increase their likelihood of falling in to the criminal justice system. Obviously indigenous incarceration is multi-faceted, but the correlation between poverty and crime is strong- indigenous communities have high rates of poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, poorer health and education standards, than their non-indigenous counterparts and an overall higher representation in prisons. Inaddition, a large body of literature suggests that collectively,prisoners also suffer poorer health than the general population.


  • Demographics of Australian prisons
To paint a picture of the current patterns and trends in the backgrounds and socioeconomic conditions of people incarcerated as adults, significant insight has been provided by the Final Report issued by the New South Wales Department of Corrective Services in 2007 (Brown, 2008, p. 4). It is understood that collectively, prison populations in Australia consist of men and women who are on average of lower socioeconomic status, poorer health and have lower levels of education than the rest of the population. In addition, indigenous men and women and those with an intellectual disability or a mental illness are significantly over represented (Weatherburn & Holmes, 2010). In terms of their health and socio-economic status prisoners are disproportionately affected by drug and alcohol problems, intellectual disability, low educational attainment, unemployment, having been the victim of child sexual assault, being state wards, and having weak or no family ties (Day, Casey, Vess & Huisy, 2011).

To provide some relevant statistics sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2010 most offenders were drawn from the ‘top 30’ most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, 60% of inmates are not functionally literate or numerate; 60% of inmates did not complete year 10 schooling; 64% of inmates have no stable family; many inmates have had contact with the Department of Community Services (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).

  • Is incarceration is socially determined?
In reference to the current representations in Australian prisons, the question is posed as to whether or not incarceration is socially determined. By virtue of being born into a low socioeconomic environment, are your chances of later incarceration increased? There has really only been limited research exploring examine the relationship between parental arrest and imprisonment and child behaviour and subsequent health outcomes (Arditti, Lambert-Shute & Joest, 2003). Most of the studies that have explored the relationship between parental incarceration and child outcomes have been limited by small, non-representative samples and a failure to consider potential confounders and mediators. If we look at the research of a longitudinal study conducted by Jake Najam, taken from an Australian birth cohort, the findings have concluded that children of prisoners are at increased risk of impaired health, behavioural problems and substance misuse; however, the causal pathways to these problems remain unclear (Kinner, Alati, Najman & Williams, 2007). Interestingly, there is conflicting evidence that under some circumstances, parental imprisonment may in fact result in improved outcomes for the child- namely in instances where the father’s behaviour is of such an antisocial nature that their presence is in fact detrimental to the child’s development (Thornberry, 2008).

Nevertheless, there is almost universal agreement among criminologists and developmental psychologists that poor parenting is a key risk factor for juvenile and later adult involvement in crime. Specifically, the risk of juvenile (and late adult) involvement in crime is greatly increased in families where children have been neglected or abused, where parental supervision has been poor and/or where parental discipline has been harsh, erratic and inconsistent (Kinner et al., 2007). So whilst it would appear that there is an inherent link which increases the likelihood of incarceration to those who come from a lower socioeconomic demographic, it is fallible to conclude that parental incarceration alone will in turn lead to a child’s future incarceration.
the rich get richer the poor get prison.jpg
Reiman & Leighton, 2004

  • Does jail turn criminals into citizens and improve their health and the health of their families?
The information that is available in relation to the health and social implications for jailed people and their families indicates that this substantial population group is mostly from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background, often has poor physical and mental health status, frequently engages in risk-taking behaviour and, as a result, have special health needs (Coyle, Shelupanov & Walcher, 2008).
Important findings from the New South Wales Inmate Health Survey (2009); the Queensland Women in Prison Report (2006) and the Victorian Prisoner Health Study (2003) demonstrate that:
  • -More than half of all male and female prisoners surveyed reported a history of injecting drug use;
  • -High proportions of prisoners tested positive for communicable diseases, particularly hepatitis C, which is strongly associated with injecting drug use;
  • -Approximately 80% of prisoners were current smokers, which was over four times the rate of the general population;
  • -Mental health concerns were common among inmates.

ACT prison to host controversial needle exchange 15/08/2012
In relation to the key issues of prisoner’s drug use and high rates of communicable diseases,
a topic of recent political and human rights debate is the concept of establishing a needle
exchange throughout Australian prisons. The link above will direct you to an ABC Radio
National report which includes an interview with the ACT's Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher and
Dr Andrew Miller, the president of the AMA (Australian Medical Association) in the ACT.
As of August 2012, the Australian Capital Territory government has vowed to implement the
controversial program by early 2013, despite opposition from many Liberal politicians. The
program seeks to address the issue of high rates of blood-borne viruses in the Alexander
Maconochie Centre Prison. A similar needle exchange program trialed in Geneva's
Champ-Dollon Prison has proven to be very effective in cutting down on the transmission of
viruses between prisoners by shared needle use, as well as a reduction in illness caused by
the spread of bacteria from unsanitary syringes (Jacobs & O’Rourke, 2011). Despite this
evidence, concern still exists in relation to the legality of such a program, the safety of prison
staff and hindered efforts towards rehabilitating prisoners (ABC Premium News, 2012).
Neoskosmos, 2012

In relation to the high rates of mental health issues, suicide is a leading cause of death in Australian prisons, accounting for about half of all prison deaths. Studies have shown that inmates also have a high mortality after their release from prison (Payne, 2007). The transition back to the community from prison is a stressful period, as released prisoners attempt to secure housing and employment, to re-establish connections with family, and in many cases to cope with substance use and mental health disorders.

Most deaths of released prisoners are from non-natural causes; particularly homicide, suicide, and drug overdose (Bales & Piquero, 2011). Such findings affirm that despite Australian prisoners having access to health care, under the recommendation of the World Health Organisation and by virtue of Australian being party to the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners which sets a benchmark for access to health care in prisons, incarceration fails demonstrably to turn criminals into functional citizens and improve the health of them and in turn their families (Coyle et al., 2008). It is however promising to see that most jurisdictions have moved responsibility for health services from custodial authorities to state and territory health departments. This allows for a greater level of accountability, and health services that are therefore independent of corrections authorities. It is paramount that in aiming to improve the health of prisoners, national minimal standards to protect, promote and maintain the health and well-being of people held in custody must be developed and monitored to ensure the protection of those incarcerated across all jurisdictions (Butler, 2010).


  • Theories of punishment

Fundamentally, punishment, and ultimately imprisonment, is a method of social control (Garland, 2009). The term punishment is defined as, "pain, suffering, loss, confinement or other penalty inflicted on a person for an offence by the authority to which the offender is subjected to”, (Alexander, 2007). Punishment is a social custom and institutions are established to award punishment after following criminal justice process, which insists that the offender must be guilty and the institution must have the authority to punish. Theories of punishment are used as a means of justifying why punishment may be inflicted (Garland, 2009). During a period of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s, the judicial and executive branches (for example, parole boards) wielded power in sentencing. Legislators designed sentencing laws with rehabilitation in mind. More recently, during the politically conservative 1980s and 1990s, legislators seized power over sentencing, and a combination of theories—deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation—have influenced sentencing laws.

  • Who are the social and cultural groups who are most affected?

With reference to the above, one factor that can assist in drawing a correlation between the poor and their inherent over-representation in the prison system, is the inability of many of those from lower socio-economic demographics to obtain satisfactory representation throughout the court system, as opposed to their wealthier counterparts. This may demonstrate why a vast proportion (26%) of the Australian prison population consists of indigenous Australians, who by comparison only constitute 2.5% of the total Australian population (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2011). Fundamentally, by belonging to a low socio-economic portion of society, one faces obstacles of oppression from every angle of life- from access to education, healthcare, employment prospects and ultimately an increased likelihood ofstigmatization, scapegoatism, and mistreatment by the criminal justice system.

  • Why is awareness important?
Whilst prisons are generally populated by those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it is important to be aware that prisoners are also suffering poorer health than the general population (Butler, 2011). This is by far the biggest challenge facing correctional health care at this point in time. Good practice should apply to the healthcare of prisoners in the same way that it does to those in mainstream society; thereby client focussed and targeted to the needs of the individual (Skoze, 2011). The issue of continuity of care is also important, in addition to applying a holistic approach to healthcare. In many ways imprisonment can be seen as an opportunity to improve the health of prisoners in preparation for their release. Prisoners still have human rights; even though they are in custodial care- and one would hope that their needs are being attended to within the prison system is essentially an investment for their post-release back in to the community and thus reducing future burden in a public health context.

The World News report discussing indigenous over-representation in Australian prisons and the implementation of the ‘The Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People’, provides a clear, contemporary example of the general link that exists between socioeconomic background and incarceration in modern day Australia. Indigenous communities have higher rates of poverty, substance abuse and unemployment than their non-indigenous counterparts, and evidently high rates of incarceration. ‘The Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People’ has brought together a coalition of individuals and organizations in support of justice reinvestment; to help raise awareness of the issues affecting Aboriginal young people and to help initiate change in government policy and spending away from incarceration, towards prevention, early intervention and treatment for Aboriginal young people at risk. Even though the campaign was released in New South Wales, indigenous over-representation in Australian prisons is a nationwide issue.
The initial portion of this assignment, in direct reference to the artefact used, focused directly on the connection between those from a lower socio-economic background being more inclined to experience exposure to incarceration. The other key area that emerged as research progressed was the concept of healthcare in Australian prisons, and the appalling health status’ of many prisoners. Therefore, the two main points that I have extracted from this learning experience is that early intervention is paramount in reducing incarceration rates in the first instance, and that adequate healthcare must be provided to those who do become part of the system. Regardless of the fact that these individuals are incarcerated, it is imperative that we strive to collectively provide each and every Australian with access to health care.
In terms of future learning and thinking process, this assessment has been a wonderful opportunity to develop skills in relation to observing issues of highly complex societal importance and in turn provide critical analysis of such issues in relation to broader population health and well-being. This assessment piece has demonstrated the importance of analysis when building an opinion or drawing a conclusion of substance in relation to issues within the social and cultural environment.

Alexander, J. (2007). The Philosophy of Punishment, The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 13(235), 1922-1923.

Arditti, J., Lambert-Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003). Saturday morning at the jail implications of incarceration for families and children, Family Relations, 52(3), 195-204.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009). Prisoners in Australia. Retrieved from C668?opendocument

Bales, W., & Piquero, A. (2011). Assessing the impact of imprisonment on recidivism, Journal of Experimental Criminology, 8(1), 71-101.

Brown, David. (2008). Prisoners. Hot topics- Legal issues in plain English, 67(1), 1-26.

Butler, T. (2010). Policy at a glance- Prisoner Health Policy. Public Health Association of Australia. Retrieved from

Colvin, M. (Reporter). (2012, August 15). “ACT prison to host controversial needle exchange”. On Radio National [Radio broadcast]. Sydney, NSW: ABC Radio.

Coyle, A., Shelupanov, A., & Walcher, G. (2008). Populations at Special Health Risk: Incarcerated. In K. Heggenhougen (Ed.), International encyclopedia of Public Health (pp.206-215).London, UK: Elsevier.

Day, A., Casey, S., Vess, J., & Huisy, G. (2011). Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice- Assessing the social climate of Australian prisons. Retrieved from Australian Government -Australian Institute of Criminology website

Fazel, S., & Baillargeon, J. (2011). The health of prisoners. The Lancet, 377 (9769), 956-965.

Garland, D.(2009). A culturalist theory of punishment?, Punishment & Society, 11(2), 1462-4745.

Indig, D., Topp, L., Ross, B., Mamoon, H., Border, B., Kumar, S. & McNamara, M. (2009). New South Wales Inmate health survey: Key Kindings Report. Centre for Health Research in Criminal Justice Australia.

Jacobs, G., & O'Rourke, P. (2011, October 7). Needle Exchange Program in Switzerland a success. ABC Canberra. Retrieved from

Kinner, S. A., Alati, R., Najman, J. M. & Williams, G. M. (2007), Do paternal arrest and imprisonment lead to child behaviour problems and substance use? A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(11), 1148–1156. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01785.x

Needle exchange for ACT jail. (n.d.). (2012, Aug 15). ABC Premium News. Retrieved from

Payne, J. (2007). Recidivism in Australia findings and future research, AIC No 80; Retrieved from Australian Government -Australian Institute of Criminology website ns/rpp/80/rpp80.pdf.

Queensland Women in Prison Report. (2006). Retrieved from Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland website

Quilty, S., Levy, M. H., Howard, K., Barratt, A. & Butler, T. (2004). Children of prisoners: a growing public health problem. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 28(4), 339–343.

Szoke, H. (2011). Human rights in prisons – The Correctional Services Healthcare Summit. Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Retrieved from http://www.humanrightscom

The Justice Reinvestment Campaign for Aboriginal Young People. (2012). The Campaign. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from

Thornberry, T. P.(2009). Intergenerational linkages in antisocial behaviour, Criminal behaviour and Mental Health, 19(2), 80-89.

United Nations. (1990). Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. Retrieved from

Weatherburn, D., & Holmes, J. (2010). Rethinking Indigenous over-representation in prisons. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 45(4), 559- 576.

World News Australia. (2012, May 2). World News Australia- Indigenous incarceration rates increase [Video file]. Retrieved from