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'Shock-jock' policies are driving mentally ill people into jails

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Prisons are bulging with people who need help for mental illness.

Those who yearn for a more compassionate and caring Australia should applaud the prime minister and the eight state and territory leaders for their decision last Friday to elevate mental illness to its rightful position as an urgent national priority.

However, if we are to make progress on this societal scourge, then state governments will have to end their populist urge to increase jail terms and to build more prisons.


Mental illness and Australia's prison system go hand in glove. In NSW, where tough law-and-order policies have been the order of the day for two decades, about 40 per cent of prison inmates suffered a mental illness in the previous 12 months, according to a 2003 study.

The NSW Department of Correctional Services 2003 report found that 78 per cent of male and 90 per cent of female reception prisoners were classified as having had a psychiatric disorder in the previous 12 months, with one in 20 attempting suicide. Between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of all prisoners in NSW suffer a developmental or psychological incapacity.

Frank Walker, a former NSW attorney-general, has noted that NSW police lock-ups and jails are bulging with prisoners suffering mental illness, with most either not being treated or being inadequately treated.

And NSW is no Robinson Crusoe. A 2003 Victorian survey found 36 per cent of prisoners were suffering from some form of mental illness. This survey of prisoners found 30 per cent had attempted suicide and 27 per cent of prison inmates were suffering severe depression.

These sobering statistics are repeated around Australia. In South Australia, prison authorities have estimated that more than 60 per cent of the state's 1,600 prisoners are suffering from some form of mental illness.

Yet judges and magistrates are being forced to incarcerate individuals with mental illness because governments, pandering to radio shock-jocks, and other populist media, are obsessed with winning the law-and-order vote.


In Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who is now championing the cause of mental health, led a government that increased the prison population by about 30 per cent for males and 60 per cent for females. And the Bracks Government has continued this trend - the prison population in Victoria increased by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2004. In NSW, the Labor governments of Bob Carr and Morris Iemma are presiding over a massive increase in prison numbers - from 15,500 in 1997 to 28,000 in 2005.

The total Australian prison population today of 25,000 is 45 per cent higher than in 1995.

Mental illness can develop in prison and, for those who enter prison with an existing illness, it is nearly always exacerbated in incarceration. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission has found that mentally ill people detained by the criminal justice system were found frequently to be denied treatment.

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First published in The Age on February 14, 2006.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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