Defined Terms

Social costs of imprisonment

3.13 The South Australian Justice Reinvestment Working Group argued that the

'social costs of imprisonment not only to offenders but also to their family and friends

becomes almost impossible to calculate'.12 The social costs of imprisonment include

costs to families and children for the loss of a parent and/or breadwinner; loss of

employment opportunities; poor health outcomes for prisoners, including a relatively

high risk of mortality post-release; and loss of engagement with the community.

3.14 Many submitters pointed to the breakdown of social and family bonds as a

result of incarceration. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights

Commission submitted that:

High rates of imprisonment break down the social and family bonds that

guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise

nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income

potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system. As a

result, as communities become less capable of managing social order

through family or social groups, crime rates go up.13

3.15 The situation is exacerbated when the individual incarcerated is the main

breadwinner or a parent. The lack of a parent creates difficult circumstances for a

child, with a less stable and predictable home life, generating a higher chance of the

child offending in the future.14 A 2010 report indicated that 38,500 children in

Australia experienced the incarceration of a parent per year.15

3.16 Aboriginal children are particularly at risk of having a parent in prison with

the North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Services noting that 'up to

80% of Aboriginal women in prison are mothers…and an estimated 20.1% of

Indigenous children in Australia will be affected by parental incarceration in their lifetime'.16

3.17 The 2010 report also found that children with an incarcerated parent

commonly experience a similar pattern of traumatic events, often witnessing their

parent's crime and arrest, losing a parent, the disruption of their family environment,

and the difficulties associated with visiting their parent within the prison system.17

Children with parents in prison are also more at risk of abusing drugs and alcohol,

dropping out of school and exhibiting aggressive and/or antisocial behaviours.

3.18 When a mother is imprisoned, family breakdown is exacerbated particularly

as there are a relatively small number of women's prisons and they are typically

located in areas inaccessible by public transport.18 Children may also face an uncertain

future when their mothers are imprisoned, and often come to the attention of child

welfare agencies. As a consequence, they may be placed in out-of-home care.19

Ms Tammy Solonec, Director, National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, noted

that Indigenous youth are '10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care, currently

comprising 31 per cent of all children in care'.20

3.19 The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission noted that

the cost of one child in out-of-home care was $104,443 per annum.21

3.20 The committee heard that Indigenous prisoners are affected profoundly with

the breakdown of links with family members and communities. Indigenous

communities are also affected as every individual has a role to play including financial

and social. If an individual or group of individuals is removed, the community is

heavily burdened, weakening the community and exacerbating economic distress

creating prime conditions for further offending behaviour.22 Ms Solonec commented:

In regard to the economic and social costs of imprisonment, we would like

to note that the social costs of imprisonment on Aboriginal and Torres Strait

Islander people is heightened because our identities are often shaped by our

connection with our country, our culture and our families.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and

international research have emphasised the devastating impact that a

disconnect with country and culture caused by incarceration has on the

identity and well-being of Indigenous people. Both conclude that

         connection to culture can serve as a preventive measure against risk-taking behaviours.23

3.21 The NSW Reconciliation Council noted that while the removal of a small

number of serious offenders to prison may act as a deterrent and make communities

safer, in Indigenous communities, the impact is significant:

…the frequent incarceration of Aboriginal people from communities

ruptures social structures and affects Aboriginal peoples’ capacity to fully

participate in life in both their community and the broader Australian

community. We cannot continue to lock up our most disadvantaged

minority in this way.24

3.22 The impact of imprisonment on young people was described by the Australian

Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC). AYAC stated that incarceration of young people

can have negative impacts resulting in a decrease in wellbeing, disengage the person

from education and involvement with the labour force, disrupt positive relationships

and socially exclude the person, and an increase in offending or recidivism.25

3.23 A further impact on imprisonment occurs when the person leaves the

corrections system. The Law Council of Australia explained:

For some individuals, imprisonment can have a detrimental impact on their

ability to turn their life around once they are released. Indeed, one of the

significant difficulties encountered by individuals after they have been

released from prison is re-integrating into society. Many people experience

difficulties in overcoming the stigma associated with being imprisoned

once they are released. This is particularly the case when it comes to

finding employment. Indeed, as noted by the LSWA, difficulties in

obtaining legitimate employment can increase the pressure on former

offenders to earn income through illegitimate means which can then lead to


Other individuals may suffer from serious psychological and physical

health conditions post release which may also negatively impact their

ability to effectively function and re-integrate into society.26

Prisoner health

3.24 Submitters commented on the health impacts of imprisonment. The increase

in prison populations has caused overcrowding in prisons, which impacts on prisoner

health. Drug use and related health issues are a concern with a higher rate of hepatitis

C and HIV manifesting in prison populations due to needle sharing. The overall

prevalence of hepatitis is estimated to be between 23 and 47 per cent for male

prisoners and between 50 and 70 per cent for female prisoners. As many prisoners

move in and out of the corrections system quickly, these infections pose a risk to both

the inmate and public health. Prisoners with histories of substance abuse are also at a

higher risk of death once released, particularly death from drug overdose.27

3.25 The prison population is also at risk in relation to mental health. There is a

high rate of mental health illness in the justice system with 31 per cent of imprisoned

individuals reporting they had been told by a health care professional that they had

had a mental health disorder in their lifetime, 'a rate 2.5 times higher than the general population'.28

3.26 It was also submitted that prisoners with mental ill-health do not have access

to effective treatment programs, and often wait long periods of time before receiving

support. Without adequate care, individuals suffering from mental ill-health are

released back into the community without proper rehabilitation, with the possibility

that their condition has worsened during their term of imprisonment. Western

Australian Council of Social Service (WACOSS), Western Australian Association for

Mental Health (WAAMH), Western Australia Network of Alcohol and Drug Agencies

(WANADA) noted a 2011 report on Western Australian prisons which stated that

'with problematic prison overcrowding, the mental wellbeing of prisoners will only

worsen as living conditions become more cramped…and interpersonal difficulties inevitably occur'.29

3.27 The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation

(VACCHO) submitted that prisoners are more likely to die or be hospitalised,

especially Aboriginal prisoners. Hospitalisation costs (based on bed days) of

Aboriginal prisoners in the first year of release has been costed at $5.4 million in

Western Australia alone, driven predominantly by mental and behavioural disorders

and injuries. More than a third of Aboriginal women released from prison were hospitalised.30

3.28 VACCHO went on to comment that Aboriginal people are also much more

likely to die after they are released from prison, most commonly through suicide,

motor vehicle accidents, circulatory system diseases and drug-related deaths.

Aboriginal prisoners also experience poorer health, with much higher rates of sexually

transmitted infections, blood borne viruses, high blood sugar and diabetes, liverdisease

markers, asthma and more. These health problems lead to poor quality of life

and premature death and results in grief, loss, and trauma among family, friends, and

communities. VACCHO concluded that these imprisonment costs are a significant

economic burden and an unquantifiable social cost.31

3.29 Ultimately, the social factors created by imprisonment reinforce recidivism

increasing the economic cost on the state. Sisters Inside explained that:

The social costs of imprisonment are self-evident. With every new

generation of criminalised women and children the net widens. Increasing

numbers of individuals and families are being drawn into the cycle of

criminalisation, child protection, poverty and despair – at great cost to the

state. At the same time, they are being drawn away from social and

economic productivity and contribution.32

3.30 The over-representation of disadvantaged groups within prisons, including

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people experiencing mental ill-health,

cognitive disability and hearing loss will be examined in Chapter 4.


3.31 The increase in prisoner numbers is putting financial strain on the Australian

justice system, which is quickly becoming unsustainable. Released prisoners are

finding it difficult to find work and are facing multiple barriers to reintegrating with

society. In addition, the removal of an individual from a community or family can

have long lasting effects, as well as increasing financial burden. Due to the

overcrowding of prisons, prisoner health is deteriorating and those health issues are

being transferred to society with the release of prisoners. Governments need to

address the long term economic and social costs of imprisonment to prevent further

development of intergenerational offending, and occurrences of recidivism.