Prisoners and Prison Conditions

The following content draws upon, in part, the Joint Australian NGO Coalition's fact sheets prepared for the Universal Periodic Review.

Access to appropriate health services

The number of forensic patients and mentally ill inmates housed in Australian prisons has steadily increased, without a proportionate increase in mental health resources available. Around one in every five prisoners in Australia suffer from serious mental illness. There is substantial evidence from across Australia that access to adequate mental health care in prisons is manifestly inadequate, that the mentally ill in prison are often 'managed' by segregation, and that such confinement – often for very long periods – can seriously exacerbate mental illness and cause significant psychological harm. Following his visit to Australia in 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, Mr Anand Grover, made the following specific recommendations relating to health services in prisons:

  • increase engagement with community health providers by prisons, which would improve continuity of care and facilitate reintegration into the community;
  • increase resource allocation for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses within prisons;
  • assess and invest in the primary health care sector throughout the prison system; and
  • undertake research regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration issues as a matter of urgency.

Similar recommendations were also made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2009, as well as the Committee against Torture in its 2008 Concluding Observations, regarding the insufficient provision of mental health care in prisons and mentally ill inmates being subjected to extensive use of solitary confinement.

Conditions in prisons

Conditions in prison, including transport between prisons and in "supermaximum" prisons, raise serious human rights concerns in Australia. Australian "supermaximum" prisons are currently used to house a range of inmates, including those on remand, terrorist suspects and convicted prisoners. Some of these inmates suffer from mental illness. In 2008, the Committee against Torture expressed concern about these prisons and asked the Australian Government to review conditions in these facilities and report back to the Committee on its progress.

Overcrowding is also a real problem in many Australian prisons. The Committee against Torture also recommended in 2008 that Australia take urgent action to reduce overcrowding. Additionally, reports have emerged from the Northern Territory about the increase in intellectually disabled and mentally ill people who remain incarcerated due to lack of appropriate care facilities.

Imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia are among the most incarcerated people in the world. The national rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continues to increase. Incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are at least 11 times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children between 10 and 14 years of age are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous peers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are almost 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-ATSI women. ( See generally, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia 2006 (2006) which reveals that prison numbers across Australia increased by 42% between 1996 and 2006 and that Aboriginal people constitute 24% of the prison population compared with approximately 2% of the general population.) In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the treatment of an Aboriginal juvenile in a NSW prison amounted to inhumane treatment. The juvenile, Mr Brough, was placed in isolation in an adult prison, exposed to artificial light for long periods and had his blanket and some of his clothes removed.

What the UN Human Rights Council recommended in the Universal Periodic Review

In January 2011 Australia was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council during the Universal Periodic Review (or UPR) (a process whereby the human rights performance of all UN member states is reviewed by other states).  In June 2011 Australia provided its response to the 145 recommendations made by the Human Rights Council.

The Government has accepted over 90 per cent of the recommendations and has committed to incorporating the recommendations it has accepted into the National Human Rights Action Plan.

In relation to prisoners and prison conditions, the Human Rights Council made a number of relevant recommendations.  Australia has responded to these recommendations as set out in the following table.




Strengthen legislative protections of the rights of people in detention (recommendation 86.46).

Already reflected

Australia accepts the recommendation on the basis it is reflected in existing laws or policies and Australia will continue to take steps to achieve relevant outcomes.

Ratify OP-CAT and designate an independent National Preventative Mechanism with access to all detention centres (recommendations 86.3 and 86.5).


The Australian Government is working with States and Territories to take the necessary steps towards ratifying the Optional Protocol.

Enact legislation to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners (recommendation 86.71).


States and Territories are responsible for managing and operating prisons and consider that existing legislation and policies ensure humane treatment of prisoners. States and Territories will continue to deliver corrective services in accordance with standard guidelines which comply with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Implement specific steps to combat the factors leading to the overrepresentation of indigenous persons in places of detention and the high level of deaths of indigenous persons in places of detention (recommendation 86.90 and 86.93).


The Australian Government will continue to address Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody, including by funding prevention, diversion and rehabilitation programs. States and Territories will continue to implement programs aimed at preventing Indigenous deaths in custody.

Introduce a requirement that all deaths in custody be reviewed and investigated by independent bodies tasked with considering prevention of deaths and implement the recommendations of Coronial and other investigations and enquiries (recommendation 86.91).


All deaths in custody are independently investigated by State and Territory Coroners courts and recommendations are considered by State and Territory governments. Australia has a National Deaths in Custody Program to monitor all deaths.

Improve harsh conditions of custody (recommendation 86.130).


Australian Government policy is that people in immigration detention are treated fairly and reasonably and that conditions of detention ensure their inherent dignity. Care is taken to ensure that people in immigration detention are not subjected to harsh conditions, are treated with respect and dignity and are provided with a safe and secure environment.