Punishment in Australia

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The main cell block of old Fremantle Prison.
"Prisons in Australia" redirects here. For a list of Australian prisons, see list of prisons in Australia. For immigration detention facilities, see immigration detention in Australia and list of Australian immigration detention facilities.

Punishment in Australia usually occurs when an individual breaks the law, and enters into the Australian criminal justice system. Australia uses prisons, as well as community corrections (various non-custodial punishments such as parole, probation, community service etc).[1] The death penalty has been abolished,[2] and corporal punishment is no longer used.[3] Before the colonisation of Australia by Europeans, Indigenous Australians had their own traditional punishments, some of which are still practiced in the 21st century.[4]

Prisons in Australia are operated for the detention of minimum, medium, maximum and supermax security prisoners convicted in state and federal courts, as well as prisoners on remand. There is no separate federal prison infrastructure, only state prisons. In the June quarter of 2018, there was 42,855 people imprisoned in Australia, which was an incarceration rate of 222 prisoners per 100,000 adult population.[5], or 172 per 100,000 total population.[6] This represents a sharp increase from previous decades.[7] In 2016-2017 The prisoners were 91% male[8] despite males only being half of the adult population, and 27% of prisoners were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders[8] despite indigenous people only being 2.8% of the population.[9] In 2018, 18.4% of prisoners in Australia were held in private prisons.[8]

In the 2016-17 financial year, Australia spent $3.1 billion on prisons and $0.5 billion on community corrections.[10]

In addition to its standard prisons, Australia also operates a separate system of Australian immigration detention facilities to detain foreigners who have breached the terms of, or lack a visa.[11] Some of these immigration detention centres are used to indefinitely detain[12] asylum seekers and refugees, including children[13], often without trial, sometimes for several years.[12] On the 30th of November 2015 there was 3,906 people in Australia's immigration detention facilities.[11]


Traditional indigenous punishments[edit]

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous people of Australia - Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders - had their own traditional punishments.[4] These included:

  • Spearing - a corporal punishment where someone is pierced with a spear, often through their leg.[14][4]
  • Singing - an elder sings, which is believed to call evil spirits/misfortune upon the offender. There are reports of this happening as recently as 2016.[4]
  • Duelling[14]
  • Public shaming[14]
  • Compensation - such as by adoption or marriage.[14]
  • Exclusion from the community[14]
  • Death - this could be either directly through execution, or indirectly through magic.[14]

Colonial times[edit]

New South Wales, as the founding site for British colonisation Australia in 1788, has had prisons for as long as Australia has had European settlement. The first Australian colony was founded at Port Jackson (now Sydney) on 26 January 1788, and marked the commencement of many decades of convict arrivals from the United Kingdom. Penal colonies were also founded in what is now the states of Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia.

Two penal colonies were briefly founded in the area that is now Victoria. Both were abandoned shortly after. Later, after a free settlement had been established, some convicts were transported to the region.

No penal colonies were located in the areas that have now become South Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

Norfolk Island (an external territory of Australia) was originally a penal colony, but now in 2018 the territory has no prisons at all.

Corporal punishment and capital punishment were both used in colonial Australia, as well as punishment of children (some convicts sent to Australia were reportedly under 10 years old).

Department for Correctional Services[edit]

The Department for Correctional Services is an important part of the justice sector in Australia – responsible for prisoners, the offenders in our communities, and the provision of the rehabilitation opportunities. Their vision is to create a safer community by protecting the public and reducing re-offending. A great emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing re-offending is a major goal of this department. A lot of programs are offered to the prisoners, for example, smoke free programs, alcohol abuse programs, drug rehabilitation programs, etc. Like most prisons, behavior will affect their access to privileges. [15]


Number of prisoners[edit]

Prison population of Australia over time
Year Number Rate per 100k adults Source
1982 9,826 90 [16]
1983 10,196 92 [16]
1984 10,844 86 [16]
1985 10,196 94 [16]
1986 11,497 98 [16]
1987 12,113 101 [16]
1988 12,321 100 [16]
1989 10,196 103 [16]
1990 12,965[17]
1991 15,021 116 [16]
1992 15,559 118 [16]
1993 15,866 119 [16]
1994 16,944 125 [16]
1995 17,428 127 [16]
1996 18,193[16] 126[7]
1997 19,082[16] 130[7]
1998 18,692[7]
1999 20,609 144 [19]
2000 21,714 148 [18]
2001 22,458 151 [20]
2002 22,492 148 [21]
2003 23,555 153 [21]
2004 23,149 151 [22]
2005 24,392 157 [23]
2006 24,762 158 [24]
2007 25,801 163 [25]
2008 27,615 169 [26]
2009 29,317 175 [27]
2010 29,700 170 [28]
2011 29,106 167 [29]
2012 29,383 168 [30]
2013 30,775 170 [31]
2014 33,791 186 [32]
2015 36,134 196 [33]
2016 38,845 208 [33]
2017 41,202 216 [34]
2018 42,855 222 [5]

In the June quarter of 2018, there was 42,855 people imprisoned in Australia, which was an incarceration rate of 222 prisoners per adult 100,000 population,[5] or about 172 prisoners per 100,000 total population.[6]

Australia's prison population is now at the highest it has ever been, after a 20-year long surge in incarceration.[35] From 2007 to 2017, the prison population of Australia is grew quickly in both total numbers and incarceration rate per capita. The highest rate of increase was seen among prisoners on remand (ie: unsentenced, awaiting trial or sentencing), women and indigenous Australians.[36] From 2012 to 2017 the amount of people in prison on remand grew 87 percent. This might be due to more people being refused bail, and a backlog of cases in the courts.[36]

In the 30 years from 1988 to 2018, Australia's incarceration rate per 100,000 adults more than doubled.[16]


In 2017 males made up 91.9% of prisoners[8], despite males only being roughly half the adult population.


In 2017 the female imprisoned population in Australia was 8.1% of the total adults that are incarcerated.[8]

The percentage of the total female prison population has risen 1.7 percent since 2000. In the year 2000 there were 1,385 female prisoners, in the latest recount in 2017 there were 3,333 female prisoners. The female prison population rate is calculated based on the national population total, making the female prison population rate 13.5 per 100,000 of the national population. Although women are still a very small proportion, their percentage of the prisoner population has grown significantly over the past decade. The increase in Indigenous women prisoners accounts for most of that growth. The increase in Indigenous women prisoners is due to a higher number of Indigenous women entering prison again for re-offending, as well as increased policing and tougher sentencing.[37]

Indigenous Australians[edit]

In 2017 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 27.6% of the prison population[8], despite only being 2.8% of the general population.[9]

From 2008 to 2017 there was an increase in the rate of Indigenous people imprisoned, from 1.8% of the indigenous population to 2.43%.[38]

In 2017, indigenous people were over 15 times more likely than non-indigenous people to be imprisoned.[39]

State and territory prison populations[edit]

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics as of the 30th of June 2017 the number of adult prisoners according to each state and territory were as follows:[40]

Adult Prisoner Statistics Per State/Territory[40]
State/Territory Number of Prisoners Percent Change From 2016 Percent Male Percent Female Percent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
New South Wales 13,149 +4 92 8 24
Victoria 7,149 +10 93 7 9
Queensland 8,476 +9 92 8 32
South Australia 3,032 +3 93 7 23
Western Australia 6,743 +7 90 10 37
Tasmania 596 +5 94 6 20
Northern Territory 1,601 +4 93 7 84†
Australian Capital Territory 449 +2 91 9 21

†Note that Indigenous Australians make up 25% of the Northern Territory's population, compared to under 5% in all other states and territories, and 2.8% nationally.[41]

State and territory incarceration rates[edit]

In 2017 the Northern Territory had by far the country's highest incarceration rate at 878 per 100,000 adult population. This was more than 3 times the national imprisonment rate. However, it was a decrease from 923 per 100,000 the previous year.[42] In June 2018 this had increased to 965.[43]

Incarceration rate by State and Territory[40]
State/Territory 2017 incarceration rate
New South Wales 216
Victoria 145
Queensland 222
South Australia 224
Western Australia 340
Tasmania 146
Northern Territory 878
Australian Capital Territory 141

By crime[edit]

Prisoners in 2017, by most serious crime committed:[44]

  • Illicit drug offences - 6155 individuals - 15% of all prisoners
  • Sexual assault - 4785 individuals - 9.8%
  • Homicide - 3110 individuals - 7.7%
  • Acts intended to cause injury - 9659 individuals
  • Unlawful entry with intent - 4378 individuals
  • Offences against justice procedures - 3066
  • Robbery/extortion - 3255

From 2013-2017, the largest increase was in prohibited weapons crimes, and illicit drug crimes.[44]

In 1990, 1347 people were in prison with the most serious offence being an illicit drug offence. This was 10% of all prisoners (total of 12,965).[45]

Federal prisoners

Federal prisoners are persons sentenced under commonwealth (federal) law, or transferred from another country to serve their sentence in Australia. In June 2018 there was 963 federal prisoners serving sentences in Australia.[43]

Place of birth[edit]

Overall, foreign-born people are less likely to be imprisoned than people born in Australia. In 2017, foreign-born people were 35% of the adult population, but only 18% of the prison population.[46]

The incarceration rate differed depending on country of birth. People born in Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Samoa, Afghanistan and Tonga all had incarceration rates higher than the national average. Meanwhile people born in China, Hong Kong, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, South Africa, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea and Fiji had incarceration rates lower than the national average.[47]

However, these rates are not age-standardised, meaning they do not account for the fact that different groups tend to be younger or older on average. This matters, because teenagers and young adults are much more likely to commit crime than older adults. For instance the Sudanese-born population tends to be much younger on average, and this can help to explain their over-representation in the prison population.[48]

Youth imprisonment[edit]

In Australia the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, meaning children under 10 cannot be charged with a crime. In 2018, law experts called for the age to be raised to 16 and the various Attorneys General decided to investigate the matter.[49]

On an average night in June 2017, there was 964 minors imprisoned in Australia.[50]

Of these:

  • 91% were male
  • 84% were aged 10-17
  • 64% were unsentenced
  • 53% were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth

According to a 2018 SBS article, around 600 children under 14 are locked up in Australian prisons each year.[49]

Abuse in juvenile prisons[edit]

In 2016 the ABC aired a Four Corners report which revealed abuse of youth occurring at Don Dale Youth Correction Center in the Northern Territory. This included an incident where, in 2015, Dylan Voller, then a minor, had his face covered with a spit hood and was strapped into a mechanical restraint chair for 2 hours. As a result the Australian government established the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.[51]

Life imprisonment in Australia[edit]

In Australia, life imprisonment is of indeterminate length. The sentencing judge usually sets a non-parole period after which the prisoner can apply for release under parole conditions, or in the case of a criminal who has committed particularly heinous crimes, the sentencing judge may order that the person is "never to be released".

The gatehouse of Fremantle Prison

High-security prisons[edit]

For extremely high-risk offenders, Australia operates several supermax prisons.

Private prisons[edit]

History and statistics[edit]

In 2018, 18.4% of prisoners in Australia were held in private prisons. This was much higher than the rate for the U.S. which was 8.4%.[8]

Modern prison privatisation began in the U.S. and Australia followed shortly thereafter[52]. On the 2nd of January 1990, Borallon Correctional Centre opened as the first private prison in Australia, located in Queensland. Borallon was managed by the Corrections Company of Australia[53] (which was owned by John Holland Group, Wormald International and Corrections Corporation of America).[54] In 2007 Serco won the bid to take over the prison.[53] In 2012 Borallon closed.[55] In 2016 it reopened as a government-operated prison.[56]

In 1992, the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre opened, as the second private prison in Queensland, managed by GEO Group Australia.[57]

In 1993, New South Wales became the second Australian state to privatise prisons after Queensland, when Junee Correctional Centre was opened.[52]

As of November 2018, there were no private prisons located in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.

Violence and overcrowding[edit]

In June 2018, an investigation by the ABC revealed high rates of innmate violence, prison guard brutality and overcrowding at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Queensland. At that time, the contract for the prison was up for tender. In 2016, The rate of prisoner assault at the prison was more than double the next highest prison.[57]

Arguments for and against[edit]

A 2016 article by Anastasia Glushko (a former worker in the private prison sector) argues in favour of privately operated prisons in Australia. According to Glushko, private prisons in Australia have decreased the costs of holding prisoners and increased positive relationships between inmates and correctional workers. Outsourcing prison services to private companies has allowed for costs to be cut in half. Compared with $270 a day in a government-run West Australian jail, each prisoner in the privately operated Acacia facility near Perth costs the taxpayer $182. Glushko also says that positive prisoner treatment was observed during privatisation in Australia by including more respectful attitudes to prisoners and mentoring schemes, increased out-of-cell time and more purposeful activities. As Australia’s prison population has grown and existing facilities have aged, public-private partnerships have provided opportunities to build new correctional centers while enabling governments to defer much needed cash flow. Glushko points out that at Ravenhall Prison in Victoria, the operator is compensated on the basis of the recidivism rate, and this strategy may make the operator more concerned about the wellbeing of its inmates after prison which in return would benefit the entire Australian correctional system.[58]

Conversely, a 2016 report from the University of Sydney found that in general, all states of Australia lacked a comprehensive approach to hold private prisons accountable to the government. The authors said that of all the states, Western Australia had the "most developed regulatory approach" to private prison accountability, as they had learnt from the examples in Queensland and Victoria. Western Australia provided much information about the running of private prisons in the state to the public, making it easier to assess performance. However the authors note that in spite of this, overall it is difficult to compare the performance and costs of private and public prisons as they often house different kinds and amounts of prisoners, in different states with different regulations. They note that Acacia Prison, sometimes held up as an example of how private prisons can be well run, cannot serve as a general example of prison privatisation.[59]

Additionally, community corrections orders have been argued to be cheaper and equally as effective as public or private incarceration. See the section on community corrections for more details.

List of private prisons in Australia[edit]

Private prisons in Australia, November 2018
Private prison State or territory Operating company
Mount Gambier Prison South Australia G4S
Port Phillip Prison Victoria G4S
Fulham Correctional Centre Victoria GEO Group Australia
Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre Queensland GEO Group Australia
Parklea Correctional Centre New South Wales GEO Group Australia
Junee Correctional Centre New South Wales GEO Group Australia
Ravenhall Prison Victoria GEO Group Australia
Acacia Prison Western Australia Serco
Southern Queensland Correctional Centre Queensland Serco

Former private prisons[edit]

Private immigration detention facilities[edit]


As of 2018, several of Australia's immigration detention facilities were operated by private companies.

Notable former private immigration detention facilities

Cost of prisons in Australia[edit]

In 2016-17, Australia spent $3.1 billion on prisons.[10]

Immigration detention facilities[edit]

In addition to regular prisons, Australia also operates several immigration detention facilities.

In some cases these facilities are used to house non-citizens who have been alleged to commit crimes, or convicted of crimes, or otherwise breached their travel visa conditions, or who lack a visa.[11]

Australia's immigration detention facilities are also used to imprison people who have committed no crimes, such as many asylum seekers, refugees, including some children, who can in some cases be imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial - in many cases people have been detained for several years.[12][13] This, as well as poor conditions, neglect[68], harsh treatment[66] and deaths[69] in some of the centers, has been the source of controversy in Australia and internationally.

On the 30th of November 2015 there was 3,906 people in Australia's immigration detention facilities. This included people located in immigration detention facilities in Australia, as well as those located in Australian-run immigration detention facilities in other countries. 585 of these were in community detention (a form of detention separate from actual immigration detention facilities) in Australia proper. 70 were children in Australia's immigration detention facilities in foreign countries such as Nauru.[11]

Some of Australia's immigration detention facilities are privately operated. See the above section on private prisons for more details.


From 2000-2018 there have been dozens of deaths in Australia's immigration detention facilities, as many as 20 of those were suicide. In one case, a man died after publicly setting himself on fire in Nauru Regional Processing Centre to protest how he was being treated. Several more people have committed suicide after release, due to mental health issues connected with them being detained.[69]

Non-prison punishments[edit]

Community Corrections[edit]

Community Corrections is the term used for various punishments and court orders in Australia that do not involve prison time.[1]

In 2016-2017 financial year, Australia spent $500 million ($0.5 billion) Australian dollars on community corrections.[10]

In the June 2018, there were 69,397 people in community corrections, an increase of 1,406 (4%) from June 2017. 55,867 (81%) were male and all of the remainder were female[70] (Australia allows people to legally register as X/third gender on some identity documents).[71]

In June 2013 there was 57,354 people in community corrections.[70] From 2013 to 2018, females serving community corrections orders increased by 40% compared to males by 26%.[70]

In June 2006, there were 52,212 persons in community-based corrections in Australia.[24]

In June 2018 most common type of community corrections orders were, in order:[70]

  • Sentenced probation
  • Parole
  • Community service

Please note that people may receive two or more different corrections orders at the same time.[70]


An article in The Age, citing a report by the Institute of Public Affairs (a conservative think tank) as well as other figures, said community correctional orders are argued to be significantly cheaper than the cost of private or public incarceration (roughly 10% of the cost of putting people behind bars), "16 per cent of offenders who completed a CCO returned to corrective services within two years" compared to the nearing 50% in traditional prisons. Community-correctional orders CCOs are increasingly commonplace in Victoria and show that crime rates can be meaningfully affected.[72]

Additionally, a June 2018 report from the Australian Institute of Criminology also found that in the short term, for a certain kind of prisoner (comprising roughly 15% of prisoners in Victoria), dealing with them via community corrections orders had similar outcomes to prison but was 9 times cheaper.[73]

Other non-prison punishments[edit]

These include:

Involuntary psychiatric treatment[edit]

In Australia people can be given a court order (Treatment Order, Involuntary Treatment Order etc) to enter into psychiatric treatment. There are strict legal requirements for this to occur: the person must be deemed by psychiatrists to be a) mentally ill, b) require treatment c) unable to make their own decisions, and d) a danger to themselves or others. The exact requirements differ by state and territory. In some cases the treatment order will mandate they they be committed to and kept in a psychiatric hospital, in other cases it will simply mandate that they engage in treatment - such as taking medication - whilst living in the community.[78]

Corporal punishment in Australia[edit]

In the past, some indigenous Australian groups practiced a punishment called spearing, where the offender would be pierced (often through the leg) with a spear.[14][4]

Flogging (also called whipping, lashing) was used from 1788 up until 1958. The Australian folk ballad Jim Jones at Botany Bay, dated to the early 19th century, is written from the perspective of a convict wanting to take revenge on those who flogged him.[79] The last men flogged in Australia were William John O'Meally and John Henry Taylor, at Pentridge Prison, Victoria on the 1st of April, 1958 (technically William was flogged second, and so was the last).[3]

Corporal punishment of school children is legally banned in public schools nationwide. It remains legal in private schools in South Australia and Queensland, though in practice it is very rare.[80]

Capital punishment in Australia[edit]

On the 3rd of February, 1967 Ronald Ryan was the last individual to be executed in Australia after he killed a prison officer whilst attempting to escape Pentridge Prison.[81] A few years later the Federal Parliament passed the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973, abolishing the death penalty amongst federal law however not prohibiting its use in state or territory law.[82]

The various states and territories all formally legally abolished capital punishment in their laws, with the first being Queensland in 1922 and the last being New South Wales in 1985.[83][82]

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a multilateral treaty outlining the obligations of its parties to respect and promote the civil and political rights of individuals. Article 6 of the ICCPR states the death penalty may only be used in countries that have not abolished capital punishment for the severest of crimes. [84]The Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was created as an accompaniment to the ICCPR and altered Article 6 to ensure the abolishment of the death penalty in all cases worldwide. [85]

In Australia the second optional protocol to the ICCPR has been signed and ratified into domestic law. This is seen through the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Act 2010. The act fully abolished the death penalty and effectively ensured no state or territory is able to reintroduce it.[2]

Deaths in custody[edit]

In 2013-2015, there were 149 deaths in custody in Australia, the majority occurred in prison while a minority occurred in police custody. The majority of prisoners who died in prison and police custody were male, over 40 years of age and non-Indigenous.[86] For deaths in immigration detention, see the section on immigration detention facilities.

Deaths in custody in Australia, 2013-2015[86]
Type of custody Total number Male Female Aged 40+ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Police 34 88% 12% 56% 19%
Prison 115 97% 3% 79% 22%

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths[edit]

Indigenous Australians are highly over-represented among deaths in custody, as they are only 2.8% of the general population.[9] This led the government to establish a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987, which delivered its report in 1991. However, in general there has been a lack of action on reports into deaths, including a failure to implement the recommendations of the 1987 royal comission, and indigenous deaths in custody remain disproportionately high.[87]

Police custody deaths[edit]

Of the 34 deaths that occurred in police custody in 2013-2015, 50% resulted from gunshot wounds. Of those, 13 were police shootings while 4 were self-inflicted.[86]

7 of the 34 occurred during motor vehicle pursuits, while 6 occurred in sieges and 2 in raids. 10 were listed as "other".[88]

From 1989-1991 until now, people aged 25-39 have been overall the most represented group in police deaths, followed by people aged under 25, then 40-54 year olds, then people aged 55+. However, as noted above, in 2013-2015 the majority of deaths were people aged over 40. Furthermore from 1989-1990 to 2014-2015, the overall most common situation for deaths in police custody to occur, was during a motor vehicle pursuit.[88]

Prison deaths[edit]

7/10 prison deaths were due to natural causes, and 1/3 of those were due to heart disease. The rate of deaths per 100,000 prisoners was 0.16 for sentenced prisoners (ie prisoners who were convicted and serving a sentence) and 0.18 for unsentenced prisoners (ie: in prison awaiting trial).[86]

Deaths in prison custody in Australia, 2013-2015, by sentence status and cause[86]
Sentence status Natural causes Hanging External/multiple trauma Alcohol and other drugs Other
Sentenced 83% 10% 4% 2% 1%
Unsentenced 39% 57% 0% 4% 0%

In 1979-1980, there were only 15 deaths in prison custody. This increased until in 1997-1998 there was 80 deaths in prison custody. Deaths then decreased sharply to 28 in 2005-2006, before rising again to 54 in 2013-2014 and 61 in 2014-2015. In the late 1990's there was a large disparity between the rate of death (per 100,000 prisoners) for sentenced and unsentenced prisoners, peaking at 1.18 for unsentenced prisoners to 0.28 for sentenced.[89]

Prison deaths by state/territory:

Deaths in prison custody in Australia, 2013-2015, by state/territory[89]
State/territory Prison deaths Percent of national prison deaths
New South Wales 34 29.5%
Victoria 26 22.6%
Queensland 18 15%
Western Australia 11 9.5%
South Australia 11 9.5%
Tasmania 4 3.47%
Northern Territory 8 6.95%
Australian Capital Territory 3 2.6%

Former prisons[edit]

Prison museums[edit]

A recreation 1855 cell in Fremantle Prison.

Former Australian prisons which are now open to the public as museums.

Other former prisons[edit]

Cultural depictions[edit]

Many movies and television shows have depicted the punishment of early convicts and bushrangers in Australia. See those articles for more information.

  • Prisoner was a soap opera which ran from 1979 - 1986 and depicted life in a fictional women's prison in Australia.
  • Wentworth is a drama that started broadcasting in 2013. It is a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, in the same vein as Orange is the New Black and Bad Girls.
  • Underbelly is a drama series which depicts the lives of Australian criminals, including many prison scenes.

See also[edit]


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