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Prisons: the psychiatric institution of last resort?



Margaret Tobin Centre

Flinders Medical Centre, Flinders Drive

Bedford Park

SA, 5042




Accessible summary

  • Throughout recorded history, the mentally ill have been living at the fringes of society, frequently alienated, treated inhumanely, and made as scapegoats for the prevailing societal ills.
  • Australia has seen the number of public psychiatric hospital beds fall from 30 000 in the early 1960's to 8000 as of 2006. The Australian population has more than doubled since this time, such phenomena is mirrored in the UK and the USA.
  • As of June 2011, there were 28 964 individuals detained in Australian prisons, this represents a figure close to 70% higher than in comparison to the figure reported in 1996. However, Australia's population has only increased by just over 27% in this time period.
  • Authors and researchers are claiming that a debilitated public psychiatric healthcare system has resulted in large ‘trans-migrations’ of patients from psychiatric hospital beds to prisons and jails, via an intermediary period in their communities.


The World Health Organization declared in 1948 that the enjoyment of the highest individual attainment of health for any person is a fundamental human right. Australia, the UK and the United States all legally ratified this declaration as becoming signatories to their founding treatise with the United Nations. Despite this, there are many conspicuous examples of inequities of public health as found within these nations. One of the more disparate and outrageous examples of inequities in public health has been an insidious trend towards criminalizing mental illness, and the largely unjust treatment of many mentally ill persons. This change has resulted in untold numbers of mentally ill persons being over-represented within the criminal justice system, experiencing higher morbidity, co-morbidity and mortality rates, and having difficulty in surviving in a society frequently dealing with their illness in a persecutory manner. Questions must be raised: that although over the passage of time medical science and technology has changed, but has western societies’ attitudes to health equity kept pace?

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