9 Steps To Prevent Drug Relapse And Deaths in Custody-Community Transition

In June 2019, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACDM) published their report Custody-Community Transitions which contains details of the emerging evidence on the increasing drug-related harms in prisons and related to transitions through the criminal justice system. In particular, the increased risk of death, including by overdose, in the weeks immediately following release to the community.

This report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) provides advice on how to reduce drug-related harms that occur when people move between custody and the community. It seeks to answer three questions.

  1. What are the drug-related harms and benefits associated with transitions between custody and the community?
  2. What are the most important existing recommendations in this area, and to what extent have they been implemented?
  3. Is there a need for new or adapted recommendations?

The report identifies substantial harms associated with transitions between custody and the community, especially for people who have problems with drugs, including the following:
• Homelessness. In 2017/18, 34.5% of adult prisoners under supervision from the National Probation Service (NPS) or Community Rehabilitation Companies were discharged to unsettled or unknown accommodation on their first night of release.
• Reoffending. Adults serving sentences of less than 12 months in England and Wales had a reoffending rate of 64.4% between April and June 2017, with rates likely to be even higher among those with a drug problem.
• Transmission of blood-borne viruses. Prison is a risk environment for the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C, so entry to prison can be a risk for infection, and release may spread that risk to the community.
• Increased risk of death, including by overdose. Death rates among prisoners and, especially, those on post-release supervision are many times higher than in the general population. The few weeks immediately after release is a particularly high risk period for drug-related death.

There is a particular problem for people released from custody who use opioids (e.g. heroin). Restricted access to heroin while in custody can reduce physical tolerance to these substances. If these people then relapse to drug use on release, they face a heightened risk of dying by overdose. Such relapses and deaths are particularly likely when people are released without access to housing or drug treatment.

In the last ten years, a new challenge has emerged in the form of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, which are often referred to as Novel Psychoactive Substances (also known by the acronym NPS but not to be confused with the National Probation Service), ‘Spice’ or ‘legal high’s’. These have exacerbated problems in prisons around safety, security and health. Prisoners reported that the main reasons for taking synthetic cannabinoids in prison were ease of access, avoidance of drug testing for other substances, and boredom. Action is already being taken by the Ministry of Justice in the 10 prisons project.

Issues around synthetic cannabinoids that are particularly related to custody-community transitions include the following.
• The frequent movement of people on short sentences or prison recall from the community into custody facilitates the supply of synthetic cannabinoids in prison.
• It is reported that many people begin or deepen a problem with the misuse of synthetic cannabinoids after entering prison, and may continue these problems on release.
• The additional problems caused by the use of synthetic cannabinoids in prison can inhibit effective rehabilitation and resettlement planning. This is because resources are often drawn away from rehabilitation-focused activities to deal with cannabinoid-related emergencies. It is also because the use of synthetic cannabinoids can inhibit individual prisoners’ engagement in pre-release planning.

Key Themes From Previous Recommendations

The biggest challenge, and the greatest missed opportunity for reducing reoffending and improving health, is the absence of continuity of care for people who enter and leave custody with complex needs.

  • That healthcare provided to people in the criminal justice system should be at least equivalent to that provided in the community.
  • Co-morbidity between mental health problems and drug misuse (‘dual diagnosis’) in prisons is prevalent. There needs to be more clearly defined mechanisms for managing patients with dual diagnosis, formal links between mental health and drug treatment provision, and greater awareness among staff.
  • The need for a cohesive, inter-departmental strategy on drug misuse in prison is often raised. Fragmentation between different services and conflict between different organisations’ targets was identified as a problem that leads to inconsistency in care and inefficiencies.
  • Services should be more integrated. The criminal justice system should coordinate with healthcare providers, mental health services, and community supports to ensure that people are given continuity of care in the vulnerable weeks following release. It is often noted that individuals should be involved in pre-release planning and should be put in contact with support and treatment options in the community quickly after leaving prisons.
  • Treatments that help people with drug problems to accrue recovery capital – which includes social relationships, health, skills and aspirations, as well as employment and housing – are identified as valuable to sustained recovery. It is often recommended that local housing and employment organisations are also integrated into the resettlement process.
  • The benefits of mutual aid to recovery are often highlighted. Support groups are linked to improved treatment outcomes, and it is suggested that actively guiding people towards these groups improved engagement.
  • Ensuring access to services and support is consistent across the country, as adapted to local needs. The difficulty of securing continuity of care for people who are imprisoned far from their homes is frequently mentioned.
  • Data collection should be developed, and different organisations should share information where possible to reduce inefficiency, identify areas for improvement and highlight gaps in service provision.
  • There should be a national framework for continual improvement of services by setting clear performance outcomes and analysing local needs and evidence of what works.

Despite the difficulty in assessing implementation of these previous recommendations, some concerning trends are visible in the data that are available.

  • Continuity of care. The Patel Report stated that the key issue to address was the continuity of care between prison and the community. However, the latest data from PHE (2017/18) suggest that only 32.1% of people who are assessed as needing treatment when they leave prison enter treatment in the community within 21 days.
  • Equivalence of care. The Bradley Review endorsed the principle of equivalence of health between custody and the community. The current guidelines on clinical management of people with substance misuse problems states that previously heroin-dependent prisoners should be provided with a supply of naloxone on release from prison and that commissioners should support the provision of naloxone and overdose training in the community. However, only 12% of prisoners who were previously heroin- dependent left English prison with naloxone in 2017/18. In Scotland, this figure is better at 35% but much more work is still to be done.
  • Reoffending. The aim of the Transforming Rehabilitation White Paper was to reduce reoffending rates. This was partly to be achieved by providing more support to prisoners released from sentences of less than 12 months, and an expansion of ‘through the gate’ services. However, the performance of CRCs in providing these services has been widely criticised, more recently by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation who commented on serious shortcomings in supervision of short-term prisoners on release, with no evidence that expanding post-release supervision to this group reduced their reoffending.

In English and Welsh prisons, the provision of screening and treatment was improved through the Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare (CARAT) teams and, in England, the Integrated Drug Treatment System (IDTS), which expanded the provision of opioid substitution therapy (OST) in prisons. Although CARAT teams and the IDTS are no longer centrally supported, the legacy of multi-agency working continues. NHS England’s service specifications from 2018 explicitly call for a joint, multi-disciplinary approach to the screening, assessment and provision of services for substance misuse, using a range of services that are equivalent to those used in the community. The provision of ‘opt-out’ testing for blood-borne viruses (BBVs) has increased uptake and the possibility to provide effective treatment in prison.

Systemic Recommendations

  1. That the Drug Strategy Board nominates one Minister who will have over-arching responsibility and accountability for the improvement of custody-community transitions for prisoners with complex health needs, including problems with drugs.
  2. That this Minister be given the following mandate: To assess and improve performance in delivering officially accepted recommendations on transitions between custody and community for people with substance misuse, mental health and homelessness problems. The indicators of progress in this area should include the following.
    a. Reducing the rate of reoffending (within six months and after two years) of people who leave prison and who have an assessed need for drug treatment.
    b. Reducing the numbers of people who die within four weeks of leaving custody (separated by police and prison custody) and while under the supervision of the probation services. These data should be collated separately for suicides and drug- related deaths, following the definitions that the Office for National Statistics uses for the general population.
    c. Reducing the proportion of people who leave prison with unsettled or unknown accommodation on the first night of release.
    d. Increasing the proportion of people who have an assessed need for drug treatment on release who enter treatment in the community within four weeks of release.
    e. Increasing the proportion of prisoners who are assessed as having a problem with opioids who leave prison with naloxone.
  3. That the Minister of Justice (England and Wales), the Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Scotland) and their counterpart in Northern Ireland take further steps to reduce the number of transitions into and out of prisons, especially as multiple short sentences are associated with increased risk of death. This should involve:
    a. reform sentencing to minimise the use of sentences of less than 12 months, with the aim of eliminating the use in sentencing of periods of less than 3 months in prison; and,
    b. reforms to the system of supervision on licence, so as to reduce the number of people who are recalled to prison.

When prisoners are released under licence to the supervision of the NPS or CRCs, they can be recalled to prison for breaching conditions of their licence. In the year 2017/18, there were 22,183 licence recalls to prisons in England and Wales. This is an increase of 27% since 2013/14. These recalls increase the number of transitions between custody and community. As noted above, these transitions increase the risk of health problems and often break continuity of care. They also create an opportunity to smuggle substances, including synthetic cannabinoids, into prison.

Practical Recommendations

In support of the systemic recommendations made above, this report makes the following practical recommendations.

  1. That the prison services of the UK take steps to minimise the release of prisoners with complex needs (including substance misuse) on Friday afternoons. As prisoners with release dates on Saturdays, Sundays or a bank holiday Monday are released on Fridays, more than a third of prisoners are released on Fridays. Friday releases makes it difficult to access stable housing, drug treatment, and connections with probations services and job centres. People often have to attend several appointments on their first day of release. If these appointments are missed on a Friday, then the person may be left for the weekend with no housing, no money and no drug treatment. These are circumstances in which relapse to drug use and offending are highly likely to occur.
  2. That the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should:
    a. accelerate the introduction of the measures listed in the 2018 Rough Sleeping
    Strategy (MHCLG, 2018) to enable prisoners to access employment or Universal Credit immediately on release;
    The Rough Sleeping Strategy committed the DWP to the following measures:
  • increasing the level of prisoner engagement with Prison Work Coaches;
  • supporting prisoners to begin the Universal Credit claim in prison;
  • continuing work to support prisoners to open bank accounts in prison; and,
  • supporting prisoners to verify their identity for Universal Credit purposes.
    b. work in partnership with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) and the NPS to ensure that people who are imprisoned are not overpaid the housing element of Universal Credit; and,
    c. Following the completion of the evaluation of the pilots, implement the effective elements identified through evaluation.
  1. That the prison and probation services of the UK should develop and extend services that provide face-to-face, individualised support to prisoners who have drug problems in the run up to release and through the transition to the community.
  2. That the Drug Strategy Board should make a clear statement that it is the responsibility of the national NHS bodies to ensure that all people who have an assessed problem with opioid use should be given the opportunity to take home naloxone when they leave prison or police custody. The Board should ensure that resources are made available to the national NHS bodies to support this responsibility.
  3. That relevant agencies (e.g. PHE) establish custody-community pathways into identified treatment for prisoners who have an assessed problem with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or other non-opioid drugs – as well as for users of opioids. Additionally, that a pathway should be developed that offers sufficient support to enable prisoners leaving abstinence-focused interventions to maintain such change following release.
    The experience of the drug recovery wing pilots suggests that existing services in England do not provide sufficient responses to the needs of people who have problems with substances other than opioids. It also suggests that the benefits of abstinence-focused interventions in prisons are often lost when people are released. The ACMD recommends that post-release pathways for people with non-opioid problems and for people who have achieved abstinence in prison be strengthened.
  4. That the Home Office should commission research specifically to identify and ameliorate problems and opportunities related to transitions into and out of police custody by people who have problems with drugs. This should include gathering information, across the UK, on:
    a. the levels of overdose and drug-related deaths in police custody and immediately afterwards; and,
    b. the coverage and effectiveness of Liaison and Diversion schemes in meeting the needs of arrestees with drug and alcohol misuse problems.


Transitions between custody and community are inherently risky. People with drug problems are particularly likely to experience such transitions, as they are frequently given short prison sentences for repeated acquisitive offences and are often recalled to prison from probation supervision in the community due to breaches of conditions. These transitions damage continuity of care, and so increase the potential for reoffending and relapse to problematic drug use. Short prison sentences are less effective than community penalties in reducing reoffending.

It is paramount that the government makes sure more is done to help prevent vulnerable people from relapsing after their release from prison.

Full Report Here

GOV.UK News Story

More ACDM Here

Photo by Jonathan Gonzalez on Unsplash

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