Study Finds Former Prisoners are at a High Risk of Death from Substance Abuse

prisonerA newly published study featured in The Lance Psychiatry reports that in the population released from prison, around half of deaths amongst women and about one-third of total deaths amongst men are due to alcohol and drug abuse.  In the United States, study researchers estimate that about 9 percent of externally-caused deaths such as accidents and suicides could be preventable if former prisoners were treated for drug and alcohol abuse.

Study Overview

Professor Seena Fazel, lead study author and UK University of Oxford professor forensic psychiatry and his colleagues found high death rates amongst individuals following release from prison.  Study authors noted the U.S. ex-prisoner population to be an estimated 5.4 million individuals, accounting for 12 percent of the approximately 250,000 deaths from external causes annually.

Study authors noted that there have been few studies to date investigating what lies behind the high rates of death amongst ex-prisoners.

Past research suggests substance abuse and mental health issues are common amongst the former prison population.  This study scrutinized the percentage of ex-prisoner deaths attributable to these two factors.

Research findings were based on analyzing a total of 47,326 individuals—both men and women—imprisoned in Sweden since the 1st of January, 2000 and released prior to the 31st of December, 2009.

Incidence of substance use which included drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues were detailed in the data used by the research team.  Causes of post-prison release deaths were recorded.

Researchers used a specific model to calculate the percentage of deaths attributable to substance use and metal health issues.

Study Findings

Study findings revealed that 6 percent of the prisoners died following their release from prison during a 5-year follow-up.  Forty-four percent of those deaths were attributable to external causes that were potentially preventable, such as suicide or accidents.

It was found by researchers that a history of drug and alcohol abuse increased the risk of death amongst former prisoners substantially.

Taking into account socio-demographic, genetic and criminological factors, it was found that alcohol and substance abuse still accounted for 34% of male ex-prisoner deaths following release; and 50 % of female ex-prisoner deaths after release.

Moreover, it was found that 42% of externally-caused deaths amongst male ex-prisoners were due to alcohol and drug abuse; and cause of 70 % of the deaths amongst female ex-prisoners.

Researchers report their study results show high mortality in individuals released from prison as well as the “substantial contribution” of substance use to this mortality.  According to researchers, evidence from the study suggests that substance abuse may be useful in identifying high-risk groups.

Researchers estimated that about 9% of U. S. externally caused deaths could be prevented if former prisoners received drug and alcohol treatment.  The research team suggested future research should look into cost-effectiveness of in-custody treatment programs.  Identifying how to best continue post-release treatment was also suggested.

Researchers suggested efforts to treat substance abuse in jail and prison settings is an opportunity to reduce post-release mortality, as well as improve public health and safety.

According to a an online National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI) paper entitled Substance Abuse Treatment for Adults in the Criminal Justice System, substance abuse treatment in prison particularly when followed-up with community-based continuing care is credited with reducing short-term relapse and recidivism rates amongst offenders involved with illicit drugs.

Longer-term outcomes documented by California, Delaware and Texas studies contribute to the growing credibility that “treatment works”, replacing the older belief that in prison rehabilitation—“nothing works.”