July 20 2022

Prisoners and alcohol

Prisoners and alcohol

A few years ago I met a young man – let’s call him Danny. Danny was in his late twenties and after two spells in prison, the latter an extended period, he was receiving support from Addaction’s prison resettlement service in the North West.

When we spoke, Danny readily admitted that a prison sentence was an inevitable consequence of his chaotic lifestyle. In his teens, he had developed a serious problem with drugs, which caused immense difficulties for him and his family. Moreover, it masked a significant drink problem.

Danny received help for his drug problem during his first spell in prison but not for his drinking. So when he left after that first sentence, with no access to resettlement services, alcohol filled a void. The gains that Danny had made in his recovery from drugs were lost and he once again became estranged from his family. Sadly, his story is not unusual. In 2010, HMIP identified that 60% of those entering prison with an alcohol problem would leave with that problem on-going and unaddressed.

So, for Danny a second and longer spell in prison followed. That’s when he came into contact with Addaction’s resettlement service: a service committed to working with Danny inside prison alongside prison workers and preparing him for his release. This time Danny would be met at the prison gate, he would be found accommodation, linked into community alcohol services and given support on the outside to regain control of his life. Danny has done just that. He has overcome his problematic relationship with alcohol, has reunited with his family and, at the time I met Danny, he was undergoing training to strengthen his employability.

A newly published report from Addaction’s Alcohol and Crime Commission points to the extent of the problem. In our survey of prisoners, 70% of respondents acknowledged that they had been drinking when they committed the crime for which they were convicted. In all likelihood, a good proportion of that 70% were not dependent drinkers – were not addicted – but that’s not to say that their relationship with alcohol was not problematic, harmful and hazardous. In fact, for many, that relationship with alcohol is very closely associated with their offending.

We know too that HMIP identified that 44% of violent crime victims believed the offender to be under the influence of alcohol. Re-offending rates continue to be high, yet our criminal justice system does little to identify, assess and support prisoners with a harmful relationship with alcohol. That’s why the Commission recommends that alcohol awareness training should be provided for offender managers, peer support workers and mentors. This would ensure that prisoners are being asked about their relationship with alcohol and whether or not it is a dependent one. Add to this a targeted service that helps those prisoners with a problematic relationship with alcohol and we may be able to address negative patterns of behaviour on release.

Addaction’s Alcohol and Crime Commission identified that these ‘through the gate’ services linking prison support with life in the community are a vital part of rehabilitation, recovery and are integral to reducing re-offending rates. Yet surprisingly, the designated Addaction Resettlement Service no longer exists. It has been ‘subsumed’ into a restructure of the drug and alcohol services and as a consequence there is no guarantee that prisoners with alcohol problems will get this joined up ‘through the gate’ approach on release.

It’s vital too that the commissioning landscape for alcohol treatment services recognises the opportunity that presents itself during a prison sentence and on release. The best service arrangements make reference to and have expectations that there will be dedicated alcohol treatment services for prisoners, both in prison and in the community. The Commission rightly identifies that interventions should be more tailored toward alcohol misuse and that alcohol referral schemes should be set up as part of all resettlement programmes.

Finally, and as a precursor to a greater chance of successful outcomes for alcohol dependent and problematic drinkers in prison, we suggest that we don’t simply rely on existing data. A thorough and specific needs analysis should be carried out into alcohol misuse among the prison population. This will give us the opportunity to understand the true extent of the problem and inform how we target resources.

I am delighted that Addaction, through its resettlement service, helped and supported many prisoners like Danny to beat their addiction, leave their criminal behaviour behind and find a way to make a positive contribution in the community. With a greater focus on resettlement in prisons and the up and coming Transforming Rehabilitation programme we have a chance to make this the norm, not just the exception.