Majority of women in prison are mothers: Report

Morgan Liotta

30/05/2019 3:11:16 PM

Nine out of 10 women in Australian prisons are mothers and two in five people entering prison have dependent children, a new survey has revealed.

Almost one in 50 women reported being pregnant when entering prison.

The new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that of the estimated 43,000 people in Australia’s prisons, most come from disadvantaged backgrounds with poorer physical and mental health than the general population.
It also found, however, that many in prison are very happy with the healthcare they receive.
The report confirms that the majority – 90% – of women in prison are mothers, and two in five people entering prison had dependent children, with the majority of these being women (54%). These women are more likely to be single parents and be more socioeconomically disadvantaged than those in the general community, according to the report. Almost one in 50 women reported being pregnant when entering prison.
Compared with women in the general community, women already in or entering prison:

  • are far more likely to have been pregnant at a young age, and to have had multiple pregnancies
  • had been pregnant at some stage in their lives
  • experience more mental health issues (two in three)
  • are more likely to smoke tobacco
  • are more likely to have used alcohol and other drugs while pregnant.
When compared with women who become pregnant after leaving prison, those who are pregnant either before or during incarceration are more likely to have poorer birth outcomes – including low birth-weight babies and children placed in out-of-home care by the age of two.
Almost one in five (18%) people entering prison reported that one or more parents or carers had been in prison when they were a child, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples more likely (31%) than non-Indigenous Australians (11%).
People entering prison aged 18–24 were almost three times as likely (27%) as older people aged 45 and over (10%) to have had a parent or carer in prison during their childhood.
The report also shows that in addition to family history of incarceration, people entering prison are more likely to have a history of risky behaviour, with a common cycle of moving between the community and recidivism. Three quarters (73%) of people entering prison had previously been in prison, with 45% during the previous year.
The AIHW also highlights that in the month prior to entering prison, just over half of people reported being unemployed and one in three experienced homelessness.
More than half (54%) of people being released from prison expect to be homeless, with 44% planning to sleep in emergency or short-term accommodation, 2% planning to sleep rough, and 8% unsure where they would sleep.
Other key findings of people entering prison include:
  • two in five had been diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point of their lives
  • four in five are male
  • two in five identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • two in three had not seen a medical professional in the community in the previous year.
Despite this population being less likely to have accessed healthcare services compared to other people in the community – who were 2–4 times as likely to have seen a doctor in the previous year – being in prison offers good opportunity to access comprehensive healthcare.
The RACGP’s Custodial health in Australia: Tips for providing healthcare to people in prison emphasises the fact that because the majority of society’s most disadvantaged groups are concentrated in one place, this provides an opportunity to target high-risk groups.
AIHW spokesperson Anna Ritson reiterated this fact.
‘For some people from disadvantaged backgrounds, prison can provide better access to healthcare and health professionals than they experienced in the community,’ Ms Ritson said.
‘Prison clinics can greatly help people in prison take steps to improve their health, such as quitting smoking or getting help with mental health issues.’
The AIHW report found that, overall, people leaving prison were generally happy with the healthcare they received while incarcerated, with four out of five rating their care as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
These people usually said their health got better in prison; more than half said their health improved, and about one in three said it improved ‘a lot’. Two in five said their mental health was better than when they came to prison.

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that 90% of women in prison have dependent children.

custodial health homeless care mental health prisons women’s health


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