BACKGROUND: The period immediately after release from custody is a time of marked vulnerability and increased risk of death for ex-prisoners. Despite this, there is currently no routine, national system for monitoring ex-prisoner mortality in Australia. This study subsequently aimed to evaluate the sensitivity of Australia’s National Coroners Information System (NCIS) for identifying reportable deaths among prisoners and ex-prisoners.
FINDINGS: Prisoner and ex-prisoner deaths identified through an independent search of the NCIS were compared with ‘gold standard’ records of prisoner and ex-prisoner deaths, generated from a national monitoring system and a state-based record linkage study, respectively. Of 294 known deaths in custody from 2001-2007, an independent search of the NCIS identified 229, giving a sensitivity of 77.9% (72.8%-82.3%). Of 677 known deaths among ex-prisoners from 2001-2007, an independent search of the NCIS identified 37, giving a sensitivity of 5.5% (4.0-7.4%). Ex-prisoner deaths that were detected were disproportionately drug-related, occurring within the first four weeks post-release, among younger prisoners and among those with more than two prior prison admissions.
CONCLUSIONS: Although a search of the NCIS detected the majority of reportable deaths among prisoners, it was only able to detect a small minority of reportable deaths among ex-prisoners. This suggests that the NCIS is not effective for monitoring mortality among ex-prisoners in Australia. Given the elevated rates of mortality among ex-prisoners in Australia and elsewhere, there remains an urgent need to establish a process for routine monitoring of ex-prisoner mortality, preferably through record linkage.