Prisons: mental health institutions of the 21st century?

Paul White and Harvey Whiteford
Med J Aust 2006; 185 (6): . || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2006.tb00581.x
Published online: 18 September 2006

There is a desperate need for effective mental health services for prisoners and ex-prisoners

Deinstitutionalisation in Australia has seen the number of public and private psychiatric hospital beds fall from 30 000 in the early 1960s to 8000 today. The population of Australia doubled during this time. There is no doubt that many people with serious mental illness are not being managed well in the community.1 Some mental health researchers,2-4 as well as the popular press, argue that there has been a recent related transmigration of people from psychiatric beds to remand centres (which house prisoners who have been charged with an offence but not yet convicted) and prisons. Australian remand centres often contain more seriously mentally ill people than general hospital mental health inpatient units. However, it is unclear whether the apparent rise in prevalence of mental illness among prisoners reflects a genuine increase or an improvement in detection rates. Statistical modelling of the effect of deinstitutionalisation on the number of prisoners with mental health problems is fraught with methodological challenges and the absence of longitudinal data.5 This debate has tended to overshadow other major areas of concern about mental illness among prisoners.6 As Herrman et al pointed out 15 years ago, whatever the cause, services for people with mental illness in Australian prisons are inadequate and in need of urgent reform.6

  • 1 Policy and Economics Group, Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, Brisbane, QLD.
  • 2 School of Population Health, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD.

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