The report analyses of data collected through the National Deaths in Custody Program, established in 1992 following recommendations by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
In 2008 there were 86 deaths in prison and police custody, up from 74 deaths in 2007 but much lower than the numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. No deaths occurred in juvenile justice centres in 2008.
Co-author Laura Beacroft commented that -
Overall deaths in custody have been decreasing since 2000. The slight increase in the numbers of deaths since 2006 are associated with the ageing prison population and resulting health issues such as cancer and heart attacks – 70% of prison deaths were due to natural causes, and 47% of all deaths in custody were due to natural causes.Beacroft went on to note that the long-term trends for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths in custody have been decreasing over the past decade.
Indigenous people are not more likely to die in custody. The problem lies in the over-representation of Indigenous persons entering custody – Indigenous people comprise less than 2.5 percent of the total Australian population yet account for over a quarter (28%) of young people in juvenile detention, one-third (33%) of people involved in police custody incidents and almost one-quarter (24%) of the total prison population.Between 1980 and 2005 there were generally more deaths of prisoners aged 25–39 years each year than those aged 55 years and over, a pattern reversed in the past seven years. In 2008 the number of deaths of persons aged 55 years and older was the highest recorded since data collection began in 1980, representing 35% of prison deaths in 2008. The number of 40 to 54 year olds who died in prison custody in 2008 was the second highest ever recorded.
In 2008 some 16 prison deaths occurred in cells, 26 in public hospitals, 10 in prison hospitals and two in other custodial settings. Six Indigenous deaths in 2008 occurred in a public hospital, two occurred in a cell and one in another custodial setting.
The AIC reports that young Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners are more likely to hang themselves than older prisoners, with 84% of total hangings involving persons aged under 39 years and 39% involving persons under 25 years. Preliminary analysis indicates that the median age of those dying in police custody (as of 2008) is 29 years, lower than the median age at death of 43 years in prison custody.
It goes on to indicate that -
factor contributing to this rise in the number of natural cause deaths in prison custody may be the poorer health of prisoners compared with the general population. Conclusions from a recent study [PDF] completed by the AIHW on prisoner health indicate thatIn a co-authored article in the December issue of Melbourne University Law Review last month I pointed to indications that the incarcerated have a greater incidence of ADHD and comorbidities, likely to shape the individual's economic circumstances and thus health prior to incarceration.prisoner populations are acknowledged as having some of the worst health in the community. High rates of chronic disease, blood-borne viruses and sexually transmitted infections, psychiatric illness and injury are found in this population.Further, research has found that prisoners in Australia had higher rates of schizophrenia and psychotic disorders than the wider community and that the percentage of the prison population with these mental illnesses was much higher in Australia than in New Zealand, Canada or worldwide figures. As a result of these findings, it is concluded that recent rises in natural cause deaths in prison can probably be attributed, in part, to the ageing of the prison population combined with the poorer physical and mental health of prisoners in Australia when compared with the wider community.