Australian Institute of Criminology

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Prison numbers double, suicide numbers triple

Media Release

29 August 1999

New figures from the National Deaths in Custody database reveal that while the number of prisoners in custody increased by 94 per cent from 1980 to 1998, the number of deaths in custody increased by 127 per cent over the same period, with suicide deaths in particular increasing by 240 per cent.

The paper, Suicide in Prison 1980 to 1998: National Overview, by Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) Research Analyst, Vicki Dalton, contains preliminary analysis of suicide in Australia's prisons over the past 19 years. This paper is No. 126 in the Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice series.

Although the number of deaths in custody dropped from 75 in 1997 to 68 in 1998, suicides remained constant at 34 for both years - the highest figure on record.

"Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia's correctional institutions, accounting for almost half of all prison deaths", AIC Director, Dr Adam Graycar said today.

The National Deaths in Custody database contains a total of 1262 cases from 1980 to 1998; 787 deaths in prison custody, 461 in police custody or custody-related police operations and 14 in juvenile detention.

Prison suicides at a glance
Number367 from 1980 to 1998 (46.6 per cent of all prison deaths).
MethodHanging accounted for more than 90 per cent.
Gender96.5 per cent were males.
Aboriginality14.4 per cent were Indigenous.
AgeMean age: 29 years old.
Day of weekMore suicides occurred on a Sunday.
MonthMore suicides occurred in January and November.
Location85 per cent were in their cell.
Offence20 per cent were sentenced for homicide and 14.8 per cent for assault.
Legal status48 per cent were on remand.

It is estimated that while the rate of suicide in the community increased by approximately 38.5 per cent over the same period, the rate in prison increased by approximately 77 per cent.

Two additional AIC reports by Vicki Dalton will follow later in the year. One will examine Aboriginal suicide in prison and the other, Suicide in Australia's Prisons, will be a more comprehensive report exploring some of the demographic findings in more detail.