More than eight in ten prisoners who use heroin in NSW will be back in prison within two years of being released. But this rate can be cut by 20 per cent if they leave prison on methadone treatment and stay on it in the community. This was the major finding of a report released today by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
The report, Opioid Substitution treatment in prison and post-release: effects on criminal recidivism and mortality, was funded by the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund. The researchers studied a group of 375 prisoners for ten years.
Professor Kate Dolan, who led the study, said: “Continuation of treatment from prison to the community is essential for achieving maximum benefits.”
The study found that heroin dependent ex-prisoners died at six times the rate of males in New South Wales of the same age who had never used heroin.
“Continuation in methadone treatment reduced the risk of death by around 40 per cent,” said Professor Dolan.
Twenty eight (7.5 per cent) of study participants died over the ten year period and half of the deaths were due to drugs. The risk of death of members of this group decreased when in prison or in methadone treatment.
The study also found that within two years 84 per cent of heroin dependent ex-prisoners were back in prison compared to the state average for all prisoners of 45 per cent. Over the ten year period 99.5 per cent of the group being followed went back to prison on average of 5 times and for an average of three months at a time or three and half years in total. Just being on methadone when released did not reduce the chance of going back to prison but if this treatment was continued into the community then the rate of re-incarceration was reduced by 20 per cent.
Over half (58 per cent) of new methadone treatment episodes in this group was started in prison.
Dr Sarah Larney a co-author on the report said that the findings underline the importance of meeting demand for methadone treatment in prison as well as continuing treatment into the community, with extra places being created in the community for former prisoners.
Professor Kate Dolan will present some of the findings from the report at the NDARC Annual Symposium on 30th August.
"The study underlines the importance of ensuring that prisoners not only receive methadone in prison but, crucially, that they continue in treatment once they leave,” said Professor Dolan.
“Ironically, prisoners are more likely to access treatment while in prison than in the community. So prisons are effective places in which to engage heroin dependent people in treatment.”
It costs about $75,000 to keep someone in prison per year compared to $4,000 to keep them in methadone treatment. There are over 10,000 people in NSW prisons today. This number could be substantially reduced if NSW had more prison inmates starting methadone treatment and continuing that after returning to the community.
“It is crucial, if we are to reduce the size of our prison population and costs of prisons to the community, to ensure that ex-prisoners have continued access to methadone once they are in the community,” said Professor Dolan.
Sarah Larney, Barbara Toson, Lucy Burns and Kate Dolan (2011), Opioid substitution treatment in prison and post-release: effects on criminal recidivism and mortality, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales. Funded by the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund.