The economic and social costs of imprisonment
This chapter examines the economic and social costs of imprisonment. As
prison populations increase, so do infrastructure costs leading to an
unsustainable justice system and rising economic costs. Imprisonment also has
social costs for individuals, families and communities.
Direct costs of imprisonment
The Report on Government Services 2013 provides information on the costs
of the justice system. For 2011–12, the costs for police services, courts
(criminal and civil) and corrective services was $14.02 billion. This was
an increase from $12.3 billion in 2007–08. The average annual growth rate
for total costs was 3.3 per cent over the period 2007–08 to 2011–12 with the
growth rate for expenditure increasing for criminal courts by 3.5 per cent and
corrective services by 2.9 per cent.
The economic costs of imprisonment in Australia are substantial. As
noted in chapter 2, there are 114 custodial facilities. Reported recurrent expenditure
on prisons and periodic detention centres was $2.4 billion in 2011–12, with an
additional $0.5 billion expenditure on community corrections. Net
operating expenditure on corrective services including depreciation was $3.1
billion in 2011–12; this was an increase of 4.8 per cent over the previous
The Report on Government Services 2013 provided further information on
the costs of the justice system:
- cost per prisoner/offender – nationally in 2011–12, the total
cost per prisoner per day, comprising net operating expenditure, depreciation,
debt servicing fees and user cost of capital, was $305;
- real net operating expenditure – nationally 2011–12 was $226,
this was a decrease from $235 in 2007–08;
- offender-to-staff ratio – nationally, on a daily average basis,
there were 17 offenders for every one (full-time equivalent) community
corrections staff member in 2011–12; and
- prison utilisation – prison utilisation was 94 per cent of prison
design capacity, for open prisons 90 per cent and 96 per cent for secure
The committee was provided with details of expenditure in various
jurisdictions. The Western Australian Department of Corrective Services
calculated that the cost per day for juvenile detention was $624 per person,
and for juvenile community custody $77 per person. The cost of detaining a young
person was $227,760 per annum.
In South Australia, annual operating expenses for the Department of
Correctional Services were $226.5 million of which 61 per cent were employee
expenses. Of the operating expenses, $156 million was spent on custodial
services, $37 million on rehabilitation and repatriation and $30 million on
community based services. The average annual cost per prisoner is between
$108,999 and $75,000.
In New South Wales in 2011–12, approximately $130.6 million was spent on
custodial sentences and $70.4 million on community based supervision.
Recent modelling by the University of NSW found that the whole of life
institutional costs of a female Aboriginal offender in NSW with a history of
homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, family violence and mental illness to be
in the order of $1,118,126.
The cost of detaining a juvenile offender in NSW in 2010–11 was $652 per
day compared to the cost of supervision in the community by Juvenile Justice
NSW of $16.73 per day.
CAALAS provided information on the costs of imprisonment in the Northern
Territory. The average cost per person per day in prison in the Northern
Territory is $243.20. Given the high rates of imprisonment, the cost per day of
imprisonment is approximately $2 per adult Territorian per day ($733 per year).
This compares with the national average daily cost of imprisonment of 52 cents
per adult Australian per day ($193 per year).
Direct economic costs of imprisonment are expected to grow with a new
prison currently in development in Darwin expected to cost approximately
Indirect economic costs
Coupled with the enormous direct economic cost of imprisonment, there
are indirect economic costs. These include loss of employment and deterioration
of skills. For instance, the imprisonment of juveniles can create a lifecycle
of offending that can disrupt schooling and preclude the individual from
developing skills. They have little hope of gaining employment.
Governments also experience indirect costs through increased demand for
health and welfare services both for prisoners and their families.
The South Australian Justice Reinvestment Working Group argued that the
'social costs of imprisonment not only to offenders but also to their family
and friends becomes almost impossible to calculate'.
The social costs of imprisonment include costs to families and children for the
loss of a parent and/or breadwinner; loss of employment opportunities; poor
health outcomes for prisoners, including a relatively high risk of mortality
post-release; and loss of engagement with the community.
Many submitters pointed to the breakdown of social and family bonds as a
result of incarceration. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights
Commission submitted that:
High rates of imprisonment break down the social and family bonds
that guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise
nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income
potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system. As a result,
as communities become less capable of managing social order through family or
social groups, crime rates go up.
The situation is exacerbated when the individual incarcerated is the
main breadwinner or a parent. The lack of a parent creates difficult
circumstances for a child, with a less stable and predictable home life,
generating a higher chance of the child offending in the future.
A 2010 report indicated that 38,500 children in Australia experienced the
incarceration of a parent per year.
Aboriginal children are particularly at risk of having a parent in
prison with the North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Services
noting that 'up to 80% of Aboriginal women in prison are mothers...and an
estimated 20.1% of Indigenous children in Australia will be affected by
parental incarceration in their lifetime'.
The 2010 report also found that children with an incarcerated parent
commonly experience a similar pattern of traumatic events, often witnessing
their parent's crime and arrest, losing a parent, the disruption of their
family environment, and the difficulties associated with visiting their parent
within the prison system.
Children with parents in prison are also more at risk of abusing drugs and
alcohol, dropping out of school and exhibiting aggressive and/or antisocial
When a mother is imprisoned, family breakdown is exacerbated
particularly as there are a relatively small number of women's prisons and they
are typically located in areas inaccessible by public transport.
Children may also face an uncertain future when their mothers are imprisoned, and
often come to the attention of child welfare agencies. As a consequence, they
may be placed in out-of-home care.
Ms Tammy Solonec, Director, National Congress of Australia's
First Peoples, noted that Indigenous youth are '10 times more likely to be
in out-of-home care, currently comprising 31 per cent of all children in
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission noted that
the cost of one child in out-of-home care was $104,443 per annum.
The committee heard that Indigenous prisoners are affected profoundly
with the breakdown of links with family members and communities. Indigenous
communities are also affected as every individual has a role to play including
financial and social. If an individual or group of individuals is removed, the
community is heavily burdened, weakening the community and exacerbating
economic distress creating prime conditions for further offending behaviour.
Ms Solonec commented:
In regard to the economic and social costs of imprisonment,
we would like to note that the social costs of imprisonment on Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people is heightened because our identities are often
shaped by our connection with our country, our culture and our families.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and
international research have emphasised the devastating impact that a disconnect
with country and culture caused by incarceration has on the identity and
well-being of Indigenous people. Both conclude that connection to culture can
serve as a preventive measure against risk-taking behaviours.
The NSW Reconciliation Council noted that while the removal of a small
number of serious offenders to prison may act as a deterrent and make
communities safer, in Indigenous communities, the impact is significant:
...the frequent incarceration of Aboriginal people from communities
ruptures social structures and affects Aboriginal peoples’ capacity to fully participate
in life in both their community and the broader Australian community. We cannot
continue to lock up our most disadvantaged minority in this way.
The impact of imprisonment on young people was described by the
Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC). AYAC stated that incarceration of
young people can have negative impacts resulting in a decrease in wellbeing,
disengage the person from education and involvement with the labour force,
disrupt positive relationships and socially exclude the person, and an increase
in offending or recidivism.
A further impact on imprisonment occurs when the person leaves the
corrections system. The Law Council of Australia explained:
For some individuals, imprisonment can have a detrimental
impact on their ability to turn their life around once they are released.
Indeed, one of the significant difficulties encountered by individuals after
they have been released from prison is re-integrating into society. Many people
experience difficulties in overcoming the stigma associated with being
imprisoned once they are released. This is particularly the case when it comes
to finding employment. Indeed, as noted by the LSWA, difficulties in obtaining legitimate
employment can increase the pressure on former offenders to earn income through
illegitimate means which can then lead to re-offending.
Other individuals may suffer from serious psychological and
physical health conditions post release which may also negatively impact their
ability to effectively function and re-integrate into society.
Submitters commented on the health impacts of imprisonment. The increase
in prison populations has caused overcrowding in prisons, which impacts on
prisoner health. Drug use and related health issues are a concern with a higher
rate of hepatitis C and HIV manifesting in prison populations due to needle
sharing. The overall prevalence of hepatitis is estimated to be between 23 and
47 per cent for male prisoners and between 50 and 70 per cent for female
prisoners. As many prisoners move in and out of the corrections system quickly,
these infections pose a risk to both the inmate and public health. Prisoners
with histories of substance abuse are also at a higher risk of death once
released, particularly death from drug overdose.
The prison population is also at risk in relation to mental health. There
is a high rate of mental health illness in the justice system with 31 per cent
of imprisoned individuals reporting they had been told by a health care
professional that they had had a mental health disorder in their lifetime, 'a
rate 2.5 times higher than the general population'.
It was also submitted that prisoners with mental ill-health do not have
access to effective treatment programs, and often wait long periods of time
before receiving support. Without adequate care, individuals suffering from
mental ill-health are released back into the community without proper
rehabilitation, with the possibility that their condition has worsened during
their term of imprisonment. Western Australian Council of Social Service
(WACOSS), Western Australian Association for Mental Health (WAAMH), Western
Australia Network of Alcohol and Drug Agencies (WANADA) noted a 2011 report on
Western Australian prisons which stated that 'with problematic prison
overcrowding, the mental wellbeing of prisoners will only worsen as living
conditions become more cramped...and interpersonal difficulties inevitably
The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation
(VACCHO) submitted that prisoners are more likely to die or be hospitalised, especially
Aboriginal prisoners. Hospitalisation costs (based on bed days) of Aboriginal
prisoners in the first year of release has been costed at $5.4 million in
Western Australia alone, driven predominantly by mental and behavioural
disorders and injuries. More than a third of Aboriginal women released from
prison were hospitalised.
VACCHO went on to comment that Aboriginal people are also much more
likely to die after they are released from prison, most commonly through
suicide, motor vehicle accidents, circulatory system diseases and drug-related
deaths. Aboriginal prisoners also experience poorer health, with much higher
rates of sexually transmitted infections, blood borne viruses, high blood sugar
and diabetes, liver-disease markers, asthma and more. These health problems
lead to poor quality of life and premature death and results in grief, loss,
and trauma among family, friends, and communities. VACCHO concluded that these
imprisonment costs are a significant economic burden and an unquantifiable
Ultimately, the social factors created by imprisonment reinforce
recidivism increasing the economic cost on the state. Sisters Inside explained
The social costs of imprisonment are self-evident. With every
new generation of criminalised women and children the net widens. Increasing
numbers of individuals and families are being drawn into the cycle of
criminalisation, child protection, poverty and despair – at great cost to the
state. At the same time, they are being drawn away from social and economic productivity
The over-representation of disadvantaged groups within prisons,
including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people experiencing
mental ill-health, cognitive disability and hearing loss will be examined in Chapter
The increase in prisoner numbers is putting financial strain on the
Australian justice system, which is quickly becoming unsustainable. Released
prisoners are finding it difficult to find work and are facing multiple barriers
to reintegrating with society. In addition, the removal of an individual from a
community or family can have long lasting effects, as well as increasing
financial burden. Due to the overcrowding of prisons, prisoner health is
deteriorating and those health issues are being transferred to society with the
release of prisoners. Governments need to address the long term economic and
social costs of imprisonment to prevent further development of
intergenerational offending, and occurrences of recidivism.
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page