27/11/2015 6:33 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Australian Prisoners More Likely To Have Mental Health Or Disability Issues

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Almost one-third of Australia's prisoners have a long-term disability or health condition while a quarter of prison entrants were on medication for mental health issues, according to an extensive study of prisons and prisoners.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Friday released its report The Health of Australia’s Prisoners 2015, giving a snapshot of how those incarcerated in the nation's jails were faring health-wise. Thousands of prisoners participated in the survey, with 84 per cent of prisons and a little under half of prison entrants and dischargees responding.

The AIHW found mental health continued to play a major role in prisons. Half of prison entrants reported they had at some stage been told by a medical professional they had a mental health disorder, including drug or alcohol abuse, while 31 per cent of entrants were reported as having high or very high levels of psychological distress. About 27 per cent of prison entrants were taking medication for mental health issues, while 22 per cent were referred to mental health services upon entry to prison.

"Among 35-54 year olds, [the rate of mental health issues] was more than twice as likely for prison entrants as for those in the general community," the AIHW reported.

Almost a quarter of prison entrants reported intentional self-harm at some stage in their lives, with four per cent of dischargees reporting self-harm in prison and seven per cent of entrants identified as at risk of suicide or self-harm.

One in three prisoners had "limitations in activities or restrictions in education or employment" relating to disability or chronic health issues.

"This is the first time we’ve had a measure of disability in the survey so being the first time we’ve had these results, we are a bit unsure what's happening here and why there is that link there," AIHW child welfare and prisoner health unit head David Braddock said.

"But there is a strong link there. There are a number of implications, but it is hard to say in these early days."

Socio-economic factors also had a strong link with imprisonment, Braddock told The Huffington Post Australia.

About half of prison entrants were unemployed in the 30 days before they went into prison, while a quarter of prison entrants who were homeless in the four weeks prior to their imprisonment.

About 36 per cent of prison dischargees had an education level below Year 10, half of prison entrants were unemployed in the month before their imprisonment and almost a third of prison dischargees expected to be homeless once released.

The report went on to detail that 4.6 out of every 100 female prisoners were pregnant in 2014; that 74 per cent of prison entrants smoked tobacco and two-thirds had engaged in illicit drug use in the last year; two per cent reported getting a tattoo in prison; while three per cent reported sexual assault while in prison.

However, perhaps linked to their status on the outside, many prisoners actually reported increases -- or at least, no decreases -- in health while in prison. A total of 84 per cent of dischargees said their mental health improved or stayed the same in prison, while 83 per cent of dischargees said their physical health improved or stayed the same in prison.

"Often the case is prisoners will come from fairly disadvantaged background. Some of them are saying health improves in prison, which is because they're accessing health services they don't always get on the outside," Braddock said.

"There are implications for the community as a whole. This is a group in the population who have high health issues and risky behaviour, so those concerns become the concerns of the community when they're released from prison."

Braddock said the figures around health showed prisons could be a possible place for governments or health departments to promote health messages.

"This report is for policy makers to inform policy and decision making. Maybe there is an opportunity to get at people when they're in prison, to provide those health services and education about healthy behaviours and living," he said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.