State of imprisonment: South Australia’s prisoner numbers soar, with just 10% of budget for rehab

In the past decade, the number of people ending up in South Australian prison cells has grown at seven times the rate of the state population. AAP/South Australian Correctional Services Department

This article is part of The Conversation’s series, State of Imprisonment, which provides snapshots of imprisonment trends in each state and territory. The intention is to provide a basis for informed public discussion of imprisonment policies and of the costs and consequences for Australia of rising rates of incarceration.


South Australia’s prison system is composed of nine facilities (including one privately run prison). On June 30, 2014, the prison population was 2501 – at or very near the highest in modern memory.

From July 2013 to the end of June 2014, the average daily number of sentenced prisoners was 1569, with another 826 on remand. During this period, the approved design capacity of all facilities was 2448 prisoners, with an average daily prison population of 2396. The City Watch House was used to deal with “overflow” when needed.

The prison estate was therefore running at 98% capacity during that year and continues in a similar vein. This is despite the completion and ongoing addition of new beds (and repartitioning of current space) at several facilities.

However, understanding the key issues facing the prison system requires a larger overview of prisoner numbers and rates of incarceration – specifically, how these have increased over time. Such increases have exacerbated long-standing problems, worsening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates in particular, and created new dilemmas, such as over-crowding.

Rising prisoner numbers have put additional pressure on opportunities for successful re-integration into the general community upon release from custody.

The interplay between two distinct but inextricably connected environments – the “prison community”, as Donald Clemmer called it, and the ex-prisoner community attempting, in the words of Shadd Maruna, to turn themselves “back into citizens” – is central to understanding how and why “the prison problem” keeps growing.

Trends in incarceration and prisoner numbers

Many might accept that Australia’s general population will grow from one year to the next and that it is only natural that the prison population will grow as well.

But the key question hinges on the extent to which the number of people in prison has remained steady or decreased in relation to overall population growth, or, as has been the case for some years now, outstripped such growth.

When prison numbers grow faster than the rest of the population – as it has – it means we are putting more people in prison (irrespective, say, of improvements in policing or changes in sentencing guidelines) than might “reasonably” be expected.

Over the last decade, the growth in prisoner numbers (averaging 3.45% per annum) has been slightly more than double the rate of Australia’s net population growth (about 1.7% per annum). South Australia has fared far worse. The prison population has on average increased by around 7% per annum since 2004, whereas growth in the general population for the state was just over 1% per annum.

Put differently, since 2004 the growth in prisoner numbers in South Australia was seven times that of net population growth. In that time, the prison population grew by 68%. Only Victoria (69%) and the Northern Territory (108%) experienced greater proportionate increases.

This had not always been so. In the decades leading up to the mid-2000s, South Australia could reasonably claim the label of a “mid-range” incarcerating state. From 2001 to 2006, the crude rate of incarceration – a rate that does not disaggregate the total age distribution for various groups – was about 124 prisoners per 100,000 relevant population. By 2014 that rate had risen to 188 prisoners per 100,000 – in effect tipping South Australia toward the higher end of the incarceration ledger.

It is also essential to drill down into what is happening with different “cohorts” of prisoners and to take specific account of age-standardised rates. This is important given the sharp disparities between the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 and above (around 55%) as against non-Indigenous Australians in that category (75%).

In terms of non-Indigenous people, South Australia has an age-standardised incarceration rate of 165 per 100,000 relevant population. Only the Northern Territory (at 167) exceeds this.

South Australia now also has the third-highest rate (after Northern Territory and Western Australia) of male imprisonment in the nation, with 357 males per 100,000 relevant population (aged 18 and above) imprisoned.

The female incarceration rate – although starting from a much lower base – has increased by 60% over the last decade, from 15 to 24 persons per 100,000.

Imprisonment increase hits Indigenous people hardest

The story is similar for the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2004, South Australia was positioned below New South Wales, Western Australia and Northern Territory in terms of Indigenous imprisonment rates. It now sits well ahead of New South Wales.

But the really important statistic is that, in just 10 years, South Australia nearly doubled the rate at which it locks up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2004, the Indigenous incarceration rate was 1092 per 100,000 relevant population. By 2014, it had soared to 2016 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in prison for every 100,000 such persons in the state.

Nearly one in four people in South Australia’s prisons are from an Indigenous background. Adjusting for age, such people are imprisoned at 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.

As with the Northern Territory and Western Australia, South Australia has one of the highest rates of imprisonment for a particular proportion of its population anywhere in the world. Using combined Australian Bureau of Statistics data, about one in 17 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men in South Australia aged 20 to 49 are, on any day, in prison. Among Indigenous men in South Australia aged 20 to 39, roughly one in 14 are locked up.

Reflective at least in part of the generally turbulent conditions to which ex-prisoners return once released, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody at the end of June 2014, two-thirds reported being imprisoned previously. Less than half (44%) of non-Indigenous South Australian prisoners reported that was the case.

Again, at June 30, 2014, for one in five (18%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, the most serious charge leading to their incarceration was “offences against justice procedures, government security, and operations”. In the overwhelming majority of cases this equated to breach of a community-based order (bail, parole conditions and like). A further one in four (23%) Indigenous prisoners were incarcerated for “acts intended to cause injury”.

These two “most serious offence” categories presently account for 40% of South Australia’s Indigenous prison population. By contrast, these offences apply to just 25% of non-Indigenous prisoners.

Running Yatala Prison, the state’s largest, and other prisons consumes 75% of the corrections budget, with rehabilitation getting only 10%. Mark Halsey, Author provided

Time to consider all the costs

The surge in numbers raises important questions regarding who is going to prison and why, as well as at what social and economic cost. It costs around A$180 million a year to operate South Australia’s prisons. That accounts for 75% of the total correctional budget. Rehabilitation takes up just 10%.

Like elsewhere in Australia, the costs of imprisonment in South Australia will continue to rise: the state is scheduled to spend around A$170 million in coming years to increase the prison estate by around 380 beds.

But the direct dollar cost (paying correctional staff, construction of new prison beds) is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the probable longer-term consequences of being jailed on people’s lives, such as in their parenting, employment, education and health.

Certainly, prisons are here to stay. But effective alternatives to incarceration, which balance public safety and meaningful opportunities for desisting from crime with pathways to reintegration, need to be a central part of the policy debate too.

There is some evidence that such a conversation is starting to emerge. But if the aim is to reduce prisoner numbers, then it will be important to think about which “type” of offenders are incarcerated and for how long.

It might also be necessary to examine the recurring geographies associated with much crime and imprisonment: that is, the degree to which particular areas or “postcodes” disproportionately “feed” into various parts of the criminal justice system, including prison. Arguably, that requires thinking about the drivers of social inclusion and exclusion in these and other locales.

This would mean investing for the long term – irrespective of election cycles – in upstream initiatives known to prevent crime and social disadvantage.


You can read other articles in the series here.