Five charts that show why people leaving prison need naloxone
People leaving prison are far more likely to die of a drug related cause. We know the overdose reversal drug naloxone saves lives, we just need to put this knowledge into practice.
Last year my colleague Karen Tyrell wrote about drug related deaths in The Guardian, focusing on a “guitar playing Scot called Stuart” who she got to know as a prison drugs worker. She wrote about how she formed a strong bond with him, how he opened up to her and how he died from an overdose just two days after his release from prison.
Unfortunately this is a common story. People have been locked away for months or years and then we throw them into the deep end on release. It’s not a surprise that many people struggle and some will sink almost immediately. We need to do more to help people reset their lives in a way that supports them. Below are five charts which explain why this is so critical.
Prisoners are more likely to use drugs
It’s well known that many prisoners have drug issues.
A 2013 study by the Prison Reform Trust found 64% of prisoners reported taking drugs in the four weeks before imprisonment - 25% had taken cannabis, 25% cocaine and 17% had taken heroin. And a recent screening programme in England found similar results, with 58% of people admitted to prison testing positive for an illicit drug when first entering.
In 2018 it was estimated that 28% of male prisoners and 42% of female prisoners had a problem with drugs on arrival in prison and 13% of male and 8% of female prisoners said they’d developed a problem with illegal drugs since entering prison. When we surveyed the general public in 2018, only 4% of people said they had personal experience of drug problems.
People aren’t accessing treatment upon release
It’s clear that prisoners are far more likely to have a drug problem than the general public. Yet In 2017/18, only 33% of adult prisoners who needed ongoing treatment engaged with drug support services after leaving jail.
When people leave prison their tolerance, especially for heroin, is markedly lower. But they’ll often go back to using the same quantity of the drug as before and are not aware of how the strength of substances may have changed.
Research by King’s College London found that in England and Wales male prisoners are 29 times more likely to die in the first two weeks following their release than the general public. For female prisoners this figure increases to a staggering 69 times more likely. The primary cause for both men and women is heroin overdose.
Take home naloxone is key
It’s clear that we need to do more to help people engage with support services upon leaving prison. But, even with our best efforts this will take time. That’s why making sure people receive the opioid reversal drug naloxone is so vital.
Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of a heroin overdose. It’s safe, easy to use and it buys people vital time to get medical treatment. In Scotland, a pilot study found that providing naloxone to people leaving prison reduced drug related deaths by 36% in the weeks following their release. But naloxone is not currently provided across all prisons in England.
In fact, only 12% of opiate using clients released from prison during 2017–18 were issued with the potentially life-saving drug. This is a pitiful figure that requires an urgent response
People need time
People are often released from prison into deep, choppy waters. They go from having everything structured and organised to fending for themselves. People often have no money and no job. They might not have anywhere to go. Lots of them will turn back to drugs, because this is what helped them cope prior to prison.
Giving people Naloxone when they leave jail is like giving them a life jacket. It recognises that going back to ‘normal’ life can be hard, with ups and downs. It’s a way of ensuring they don’t sink before they’ve had the time to access the support which can help them back to shallower, calmer waters.
If you or someone you love needs help or support, reach out. You can chat to a trained advisor at addaction.org.uk.