Doctors call for target to close gap on Indigenous incarceration rates


Doctors are calling on the Turnbull government to set a national target for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous imprisonment rates.

The Australian Medical Association said on Wednesday that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who were less likely to have seen a GP or health service provider before being incarcerated, were often only diagnosed with chronic health conditions“, including mental health and substance abuse problems and cognitive disabilities, when they entered prison.

It’s just not credible that Australia, one of the world’s richest nations, cannot solve a health and justice crisis that affects three per cent of our population.

AMA president Brian Owler

The AMA Indigenous Health Report Card 2015 is available at

Its report card on indigenous health argued that high imprisonment rates should be treated as a “symptom of the health gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with such conditions known to increase the risk people came into contact with the criminal justice system.

A target should be set, it said, to help improve Indigenous Australians’ employment prospects, school attendance levels and community safety. This repeated previous calls from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2009 and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ Justice Policy in 2013.

Indigenous Australians are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people, and expected to die 10 years earlier. Indigenous children aged between 10 and 17 years were 17 times more likely to have been under youth supervision than non-Indigenous children.

“It’s just not credible that Australia, one of the world’s richest nations, cannot solve a health and justice crisis that affects three per cent of our population,” the association’s president, Professor Brian Owler said at the report’s launch in Canberra.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has said setting a target would send “the wrong signal” in distinguishing Indigenous offenders from other offenders. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said a Labor government would pursue such a target at the first COAG meeting after the next election.

The report said the government should also expand Aboriginal health care in the community and hire more Aboriginal Health Workers to provide “culturally safe and competent” services in prisons to better treat such conditions, and also help reduce incarceration rates. In 2012, there were only about 10 Aboriginal Health Workers for almost 10,000 Indigenous prisoners.

Professor Owler said that prisoners could be treated for mental health problems, given help to kick addictions to alcohol and other substances, “and hopefully prevent problems from developing once they leave prison. Having that link outside prison to these health organisations is (also) important to make sure people stay out of prison.”

This comes as the government considers cutting salary support for GP registrars in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services from three years to one year as part of its review of the specialist training program.

The report also recommended a portion of prison funding be spent on these and other services that dealt with underlying causes of crime.

Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash said the government was committed to improving Indigenous health outcomes and would consider the report: “While we have seen some promising trends in child mortality rates, life expectancy, chronic disease rates and reduction in smoking rates there is still a long way to go.”

The government last month released its plan for Aboriginal health which “outlines how we will help realise the shared goal of health equity by 2031”.

The AMA Indigenous Health Report Card 2015 is available at


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