4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2004  
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Contents >> Other Areas of Concern >> Women in prison

Crime and Justice: Women in Prison

Between 1995 and 2002, there was a 58% increase in the imprisonment rate for women in Australia, in contrast to a 15% increase in the rate for men.

In Australia and elsewhere, the prison population is made up predominantly of men. In June 2002, 93% of the 22,492 prisoners counted in the National Prisoner Census were men: there were only 1,484 women in prison in Australia. However, while women comprised only 6.6% of prisoners, this represented a considerable increase over 1995, when 835 women made up 4.8% of all prisoners at 30 June. As well as increasing in number, the composition of women in prison has changed, so that those charged with or convicted of more serious offences, such as robbery, make up a larger group. As these trends do not reflect changes in crime and justice policy specifically aimed at women, there has been research and debate about their causes. These changes have also impacted on policy regarding the use of imprisonment, and on the planning of corrective services.

Planning of corrective services involves consideration of the backgrounds of women offenders, their offences, and the outcomes of imprisonment or its alternatives. Both male and female prisoners appear to often come from backgrounds of multiple disadvantage. In 2003, women prisoners were described as often experiencing 'multiple social and economic disadvantages pre and post release, through a constellation of low education, limited employment skills and opportunities, inadequate housing, insufficient income and difficulties establishing social networks'.(SEE ENDNOTE 1) Women in prison appear to be a high-need group, with many having poor physical and mental health. Many women in prison have children and some are pregnant. The effects of parents’ imprisonment on children is a subject of concern. So too is the effect on prisoners of being separated from their children.

Imprisonment rate(a)

16 593
21 008
1 484
17 428
22 492

(a) Per 100,000 estimated resident population aged 17 years and over.

Source: Prisoners in Australia, 2002 (ABS cat. no. 4517.0) and ABS 1995 National Prisoner Census.


The National Prisoner Census at 30 June covers all adults in gazetted Australian prisons. It is based on data extracted from administrative records held by corrective services agencies in each Australian state and territory. The Prisoner Census provides a picture of the persons in prison at one point in time, and does not describe the flow of prisoners during the year. The majority of prisoners in the census are serving long-term sentences for serious offences, whereas the flow of offenders in and out of prisons consists primarily of persons serving short sentences for lesser offences. Information drawn from the National Prisoner Censuses is published in Prisoners in Australia (ABS cat. no. 4517.0).

A prisoner is a person held in custody, whose confinement is the responsibility of a corrective services agency. Persons in juvenile detention institutions or immigration custody are not included. In Victoria and Queensland prisoners include persons aged 17 years; elsewhere in Australia persons under 18 years are treated as juveniles and would not normally be confined in an adult prison. For full details on exclusions and inclusions see Prisoners in Australia (ABS cat. no. 4517.0).

Imprisonment rate is the number of prisoners on 30 June per 100,000 estimated resident population at 30 June aged 17 years or over.

The Australia Standard Offence Classification (ASOC), 1997 (ABS cat. no. 1234.0) groups offences set out in state and territory legislation so that national statistics can be compiled and state and territory data compared. For most offences, data from 1995 onwards have been coded to ASOC. For some offences this was not possible and the data series is from 1996 onwards.


The imprisonment rate for women increased by 60% between 1995 and 2002, in contrast to an increase of 15% in the imprisonment rate for men. The imprisonment rate for women increased faster than that for men in each state and territory, although there were differences in the timing and the extent of the increases. Among the larger states, Queensland and Victoria recorded the largest proportional increases in the imprisonment rate for women.

In addition to adult prisoners, there were also 54 young females in juvenile detention in Australia in 2002, making up 10% of all those in juvenile detention. Their number had also increased in recent years, up from a low of 36 (6% of those in juvenile detention) reached in 1992. This increase followed a long period during which females decreased in number and as a proportion of all those in juvenile detention. In 1981 there were 233 young females in juvenile detention, 17% of the total.(SEE ENDNOTE 2)


Prisoners on remand awaiting trial or sentencing represent 25% of women in prison. The number of unsentenced people in prison more than doubled between 1995 and 2002, and the increase was higher for women than men. The number of unsentenced women increased by 189% (from 126 to 364) while the number of unsentenced men increased by 116%.

There was a lesser but still substantial proportional increase in the number of sentenced women in prison (58%) from 709 to 1,120. This was almost four times the increase of 15% for men.



The number of sentenced women increased across several offence groups between 1995 and 2002, with the largest increases recorded for women whose most serious offences were robbery (172%), theft (95%), assault (79%) and homicide (70%). In contrast, the number of women whose most serious offence was deception was 19% lower in 2002 than in 1996.


As a result of these changes, women convicted of some of the more serious offences made up a larger proportion of sentenced women in prison in 2002. Those with a most serious offence of robbery, theft or assault rose from one-quarter of sentenced women in prison in 1995 to one-third in 2002. In contrast, between the mid 1990s and 2002, those with a most serious offence of deception decreased from 16% to 10% of sentenced women in prison, and those with a most serious offence of unlawful entry with intent decreased from 13% to 10%.


Consistent with the increase in more serious offences between 1995 and 2002, the median aggregate sentence length for women increased by almost a third (from 18 months to 24 months). This contrasted with a 10% increase in the median aggregate sentence length for men. Most of the increase for females occurred early in the period, between 1995 and 1997.


As there are many steps from a person's actions to their imprisonment, the number of people in prison can be influenced by changes in a number of areas: criminal behaviour, legislation, policing, prosecution, conviction, sentencing and availability of appropriate correctional facilities. On this basis, it is difficult to definitively identify causes. The conclusion of a New South Wales Select Committee inquiry (2001) was that most likely a matrix of factors was increasing the women's imprisonment rate in that state.(SEE ENDNOTE 3) Both the flow of women into prison in New South Wales, and the median time they spent there, had increased. Possible causes included a shift in women's offending behaviour towards robbery, and to a lesser extent towards other crimes such as assault, with increased heroin use suggested as influencing increases in these crimes. Factors identified as increasing the total prison population (who are mostly men) were changes in legislation and practice which made it more difficult to obtain bail, and which had abolished remission; and changes in police practice towards 'targeted policing' which were bringing a greater volume of people before the courts. However, it was not clear if and why these general changes were having a greater effect on the number of women in prison than men.


Women make up from 3% to 7% of prison populations in most countries for which relatively recent information is available.(SEE ENDNOTE 4,5) The main exceptions are some Asian countries, for example Thailand, in which women made up 18% of prisoners in 2001.(SEE ENDNOTE 5) Countries with a similar cultural background and history to Australia are of particular interest. The 7% of prisoners in Australia in 2002 who were women was comparable to the proportion in recent years in the United States of America (7%) and slightly higher than in England and Wales (6%), New Zealand (5%) or Canada (5%). In New Zealand, the United States of America and England and Wales the female prison population has increased faster than the male prison population since 1995. In England and Wales the increase has been attributed to an increased number of women coming before the magistrates courts (which deal with less serious offences) combined with an increased use of custodial sentences by both Crown and magistrates courts (i.e. for both serious and less serious offences).(SEE ENDNOTE 6)

Average annual growth rate since 1995
Women as a proportion of all prisoners

New Zealand
England and Wales
United States of America

(a) Data are for latest year available: Canada 2001; New Zealand 2003; England and Wales 2001; United States of America 2002; Australia 2002.

Source: Australian Institute of Criminology 2001, Correctional statistics for Asia and the Pacific 2001 <www.aic.gov.au/stat/apcca/2001/>; New Zealand Department of Corrections 2003, Annual report 2002/03 <www.corrections.govt.nz/public/pdf/annualreport2003partA.pdf>;New Zealand Department of Corrections 2003, Census of Prison Inmates and Home Detainees 2001<www.corrections.govt.nz/public/pdf/research/census/census2001.pdf>; Home Office 2003, Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2002 <http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/s95women02.pdf>;United States Department of Justice 2003, Prisoners in 2002 (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin) <www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/po2.pdf>, all accessed November 2003.



Women in prison tend to be relatively young: 45% were aged 20-29 years and 67% were aged 18-35 years at 30 June 2002. This pattern is similar to that for men and is thought to reflect the age groups at which people are more likely to be involved in crime. This age distribution means that many women in prison have dependent children at the time of entering prison: around 60% of women in prison had children aged less than 16 years according to recent state surveys.

Between 1995 and 2002, the number of Indigenous women prisoners increased by 124%, from 164 to 367. One in four women in prison in 2002 were Indigenous, up from one in five in 1995. Indigenous men made up 20% of male prisoners in 2002 and 17% in 1995. Based on their representation in the population, in 2002 Indigenous women were almost 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than were non-Indigenous women. This ratio was higher than for Indigenous men who were 16 times more likely to be imprisoned than were non-Indigenous men.

Most women prisoners were born in Australia (73%). Being in prison in Australia may have specific difficulties for those born in other countries, especially where there are language and cultural differences from Australian-born women. About 7% of women in prison were born in either the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand or the United States of America, countries which are mainly English speaking. The remainder were distributed in mostly very small numbers across a wide variety of birthplaces, with Viet Nam the most common (2% of total).



Women prisoners are a high-need group compared with women in the general community, according to surveys of women prisoners' health conducted by several state government agencies. Mental health and substance abuse were prominent problems among women prisoners in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. More than half of women prisoners (ranging from 51% to 57%) reported that they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, most commonly depression. From 30% to 40% of women prisoners reported that they had attempted suicide at some stage. Most attempts had taken place in the community rather than in prison.

Detailed results from the New South Wales survey in 2001 also indicated that the self-reported prevalence of mental disorders (psychosis, anxiety and affective disorders) during the previous 12 months was very high and significantly higher than among women in the general community, as was the prevalence of substance abuse disorders and personality disorders. The survey results indicated that 90% of women and 78% of men in New South Wales prisons had at least one of these mental disorders in the 12 months prior to interview.

The proportion of women prisoners who have a history of regular use of illicit drugs is high according to the state surveys. For example, 63% of women in prison in Queensland had regularly used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to imprisonment with the most commonly used drugs being cannabis (36%), amphetamines/speed (35%) and opiates (33%). Further, more than half (56%) had injected illicit drugs at some stage in their lives (thus risking infection). Over a third (37%) had sought treatment for substance use (including alcohol use).

Consistent with the high proportion of prisoners who had injected illicit drugs, very high proportions of women in prison tested positive to some infectious diseases when screened through blood testing in the state surveys. For example, 45% tested positive to exposure to hepatitis C in the Queensland survey and 64% in the New South Wales survey.

While mental health conditions, often in conjunction with substance use, create particular challenges for corrective health services, the physical health of women in prison was also poor on a range of measures. For example, higher proportions of women prisoners in the state surveys reported that they had a chronic physical condition than did women in the general community. The most common of these was asthma, which was from two to four times more prevalent than in the total population (44% of women in prison in New South Wales, 36% in Queensland and 21% in Western Australia reported that they had been diagnosed with asthma).


Surveys of prisoners' health were conducted in New South Wales in 1996 and 2001;(SEE ENDNOTE 7,8) in Western Australia in 2001;(SEE ENDNOTE 9) and in Queensland in 2002.(SEE ENDNOTE 10) The surveys were mainly based on interviews with prisoners and the data are thus mostly self-reported. All surveys included a basic physical examination with/without a blood test. In addition, the 2001 New South Wales survey administered a diagnostic mental health questionnaire which identified mental disorders by asking about behavioural and emotional symptoms during the 12 months prior to interview.

The key statistics on women prisoners' health presented in this article are significantly higher than rates reported in national surveys such as the Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (1997) and the 2001 National Health Survey (both conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics) or the 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).


As women are a small minority among prisoners, logistic problems tend to limit the range of facilities and programs that are available to them. Most obviously, the small number of women prisoners means that there is not the same network of prisons as is the case for men. As a consequence, women may have to serve their sentences at a greater distance from their home area than do men. There are also a greater variety of custodial options for men. In most states and territories it is possible to have some prisons dedicated to prisoners of specific security levels but this is not as practicable for women's prisons. For example, the Emu Plains Women's Prison in New South Wales (established 1994) and the Nyandi annex of Bandyup Women's Prison in Western Australia (established 1998) were the first women's prisons exclusively for minimum security prisoners in those states.

In addressing the specific needs of women prisoners, some states have moved to enabling a very small number of women in prison to have their infants or young children live with them in special facilities within prison. For reasons of child welfare as well as other considerations, these facilities are intended for exceptional circumstances. Further, the style of accommodation in certain prisons has at times been adapted to cottage style units for small groups of women, thought better suited to women's behavioural style.

The care of mentally ill prisoners is an area of concern in corrective services systems. In Tasmania, a Secure Mental Health Unit is expected to be in place by 2005, to be owned and operated by the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services. It will provide secure care and a therapeutic environment for mentally ill prisoners of both sexes, whether on remand, sentenced or found not guilty by reason of insanity. This initiative is noteworthy because the Unit will be independent of the prison system.


1 Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women 2003, 'The health and wellbeing of women in prison' Focus on Women no. 8, Canberra.
2 Bareja, M and Charlton, K 2003, Statistics on Juvenile Detention in Australia: 1981-2002, Technical and Background Paper Series, no. 5, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.
3 New South Wales Legislative Council Select Committee on the Increase in the Prisoner Population 19/07/2000, Interim report: issues relating to women
<www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/Committee.nsf/>, accessed 4 March 2004.
4 United Nations 2003, The Seventh United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems 1998-2000 <www.unodc.org/unodc/en/crime-cicp-survey-seventh.html>, accessed 4 March 2004.
5 21st Asian and Pacific conference of Correctional Administrators, Chiang Mai, Thailand October 2001, Correctional statistics for Asia and the Pacific <www.aic.gov.au/stats/apcca/2001>, accessed 4 March 2004.
6 British Home Office 2002, Statistics on women and the criminal justice system, pp. 21-23; 31<http:\\www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/s95women02.pdf>, accessed 4 March 2004.
7 Butler, T and Milner, L 2003, The 2001 New South Wales Inmate Health Survey, New South Wales Corrections Health Service, Sydney.
8 Butler, T and Allnutt, S 2003, Mental Illness Among New South Wales Prisoners, New South Wales Corrections Health Service, Sydney.
9 Western Australian Department of Justice 2002, Profile of Women in Prison <www.justice.wa.gov.au/content/files/profile_of_women_in_prison.pdf>, accessed 4 March 2004.
10 Hockings, BA et al. 2002, Queensland Women Prisoners' Health Survey, Department of Corrective Services, Brisbane.

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