Aboriginal prisoners with cognitive impairment – Is this the highest risk group

Investigators: James Ogloff, Stephane Shepherd, Yin Paradies, Jeffrey Pfeifer

Project type: Criminology Research Council Project Grant 2015-2016 ($58,467)

Rationale and aims:

  • Despite high incarceration rates for Aboriginal Australians who represent around one-quarter of Australia’s custodial population, little is known about the cognitive functioning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody and even less is known about its association with recidivism.
  • The purpose of this study is to identify the extent of cognitive impairment among Aboriginal offenders in custody and the association between cognitive impairment, recidivistic outcome and unmet needs. The study has a number of aims:
    • To ascertain the prevalence of cognitive impairment in adult Aboriginal offenders in custody in Victoria, Australia.
    • To determine the level of dual diagnosis among the cohort.
    • To explore group differences (cognitive impairment) across Social and Emotional Wellbeing factors
    • To examine the level of unmet custodial needs across disability groups.
    • To examine differences in offending patterns pre and post release for offenders with and without cognitive impairment.


  • The study will utilise the Koori Mental Health and Cognitive Function Study database compiled by the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science (CFBS) for the Victorian Department of Justice in 2013.
  • The database comprises cognitive functioning, mental health and social and emotional wellbeing information for 122 adult Koori male (n = 107) and female (n = 15) prisoners in Victoria who were interviewed between January 2012 and October 2012.
  • Assessment measures include the Kimberley Indigenous Cognitive Assessment, the WASI (Matrix Reasoning and Block Design components); a Social and Emotional Wellbeing questionnaire, the MINI and the Camberwell Assessment of Need – Forensic Short Version (CANForSV).
  • Offending histories were obtained from the Victoria Police LEAP database.


  • Results revealed an over-representation of cognitively impaired prisoners in the sample. The prevalence of mental illness was exceptionally high, and so there was a large minority with concomitant illness/disability.
  • Indigenous offenders with cognitive impairment were more susceptible to harmful coping mechanisms in the face of stressors such as drug and alcohol abuse. They were also more likely to perceive discrimination, have family members in custody and have trouble managing acute emotions compared to non-cognitively impaired offenders.
  • The cognitively impaired subgroup were more likely to re-offend, were younger at first offence, and had greater numbers of prior offences


Shepherd SM, Ogloff JR, Shea D, Pfeifer JE, Paradies Y. Aboriginal prisoners and cognitive impairment: the impact of dual disadvantage on Social and Emotional Wellbeing. J Intellect Disabil Res. 2017 Jan 5. doi: 10.1111/jir.12357.