Objective:To describe the physical health of the New South Wales prisoner population.

Design:Cross-sectional random sample of adult men and women prisoners.

Setting:29 New South Wales correctional centres (27 male and two female).

Participants:747 men and 167 women.

Main results:Despite the comparatively young population, 81% of women and 65% of men had at least one chronic health condition; 41% of men and 59% of women reported multiple health problems. The most common conditions were back problems, poor eyesight, arthritis, high blood pressure and asthma. Chronic conditions were more prevalent among women prisoners. Thirty-seven per cent of women and 28% of men rated their health as either ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ compared with 16% of women and 15% of men in the general NSW community. Psychiatric medication was more commonly prescribed to women than men (25% vs. 13%;p<0.001). Similarly, methadone maintenance was more common among women than men (39% vs. 13%; p<0.001).

Conclusion:Men and women prisoners in NSW have multiple chronic health conditions. While not desirable, incarceration presents an opportunity to initiate treatment to improve the health of this disadvantaged group.