Issue 26 / 18 July 2011

DEATHS in custody rightly receive significant attention in the media, but the far higher rate of deaths among ex-prisoners during their first year after release from prison is not widely reported.

A high risk of death after release from custody seems counterintuitive, but the phenomenon has been reported in overseas literature. In the latest MJA, we present the first Australian evidence.

Researchers found that, in 2007–08, more than 400 ex-prisoners died in their first year after release — up to 30% of these in the first month. While their analysis had methodological limitations, it is likely that their estimates understate the mortality rate.

The Australian prison population is about 30 000, a figure that had increased by 39% over the decade to 2009. Approximately 50 000 prisoners are released each year, and there are about 385 000 ex-prisoners living in the community. This represents 1.8% of the Australian population, so ex-prisoner health has significant repercussions, and the load on our health services is likely to increase.

It is now clear that this population is extremely vulnerable. Almost half of all deaths were drug-related, involving mostly non-Indigenous ex-prisoners.

While Indigenous Australians comprise more than a quarter of the total prisoner population, they are less likely to be injecting drug users.

As the researchers discuss, there are evidence-based programs available that may reduce drug-related deaths, yet they are not being widely implemented.

Reducing deaths from non-drug-related causes is more complex. Interventions that target mental illness, chronic disease and injury prevention will be required as part of the solution.

Sadly, a United States man with chronic health problems recently resorted to stealing $1 from his bank with the aim of being arrested to gain access to prison health services.

If we are to look for answers overseas, there is probably more to be learnt from the German penal system, which aims to resocialise and rehabilitate prisoners. It endeavours to “normalise” living conditions so that they resemble life in the community. Presumably, this makes the transition to freedom less stressful.

The Australian penal system, with a 2-year recidivism rate of about 40%, and about half of prisoners having been previously imprisoned, is failing.

Prisoner health must be seen to encompass both inmates and those recently released. It should be seen to include justice issues that influence health: is the quantum of punishment appropriate; are there alternatives to incarceration; are rehabilitation and education programs available? Programs that smooth the reintegration of prisoners into society are urgently required.

Better data are needed to understand what is happening to prisoners after release, but the results of the MJA study leave no doubt that the health care system must flag ex-prisoners as a high-risk group, and move to meet its needs.

Dr Annette Katelaris is the editor of the MJA.

This article is reproduced from the MJA with permission.

Posted 18 July 2011


One thought on “Annette Katelaris: Why are prisoners dying after release?

  1. Frank McLeod says:

    None of this is new or surprising. Three points I would make.
    One contributing factor to these deaths is the number of addicts who are sufficiently misguided and with such limited insight into their condition as to come off methadone prior to release. In the absence of easy access to their drug of choice in prison there is less temptation but they fail to see that this will alter at the gaol gate. This false optimism sets them up to OD on release. The first ‘taste’ is often offered by those who pick them up from gaol and being now opiate naive, they overestimate their ability to handle a dose.
    As to the US system, the health care in prison far surpasses that which many US citizens can afford due to the constitutional rights of prisoners to health care. In 1990, I toured a number of US prisons and even at that time, it was commonly known and discussed that released prisoners, especially with chronic illnesses such as HIV, re-offended simply to access better health care.
    Of course it should be recognised that many on release, if not forced by the conditions of their release, want nothing more to do with anyone or any organisation associated with gaols.
    Following up such people is not – and is never going to be – easy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *