Prisoners on parole need help with substance abuse: study

woman behind bars

Experts say prisoners on parole with substance and mental illness issues need urgent specialist assistance to prevent them from re-offending.

A three-pronged approach of parole system review, tailored substance abuse rehabilitation and stable accommodation is needed to help break a vicious cycle for prisoners with mental illness, say researchers at Queensland University.

Unless that happens the current parole system is set up for failure, says Dr Michelle Denton,  School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work.

“For a young man with a co-occurring psychotic illness and substance use disorder, the experience of coming out of prison is almost as if it were structured for re-offending,” Dr Denton says.

She says the problem is not restricted to a small group of inmates, rather, young men with multiple prison stays, and health issues, are typical of prisoners with mental illness.

Previously manager of the Queensland Forensic Mental Health Service for 14 years, Dr Denton has more than two decades experience working with marginalised sections of the community.

While she emphasises that mental health treatment in Queensland prisons has improved markedly since 2000, her thesis Hoping against hope, she outlines areas where action is still needed.

“Situations that could lead to a return to jail include parole violations such as missing appointments, changing address without notice or not taking medication… basically being disorganised,” she says.

She cites other prison studies which show on release, prisoners are 17 times more likely to die within the first few months out of jail, compared to people of a similar age and sex: the main causes of death are overdose and suicide.

“We need to look at better policy and treatment solutions that ensure not only better outcomes for these prisoners and their families, but also better outcomes for society through less reoffending and less judicial cost.”

Dr Denton conducted in-depth interviews with 18 male prisoners aged 18-40, all suffering a psychotic illness and a substance abuse problem.

The interviews took place, a month prior to release, 1-2 weeks after release and three months post-release.

While all the interviewees had been diagnosed with psychiatric issues, the main reason they re-offended was substance abuse.

Her research found that only two of the ex-prisoners were on drug or alcohol treatment programs; and all had an average of seven prison stays, characterised by short-term but frequent periods in prison.

She also says a lack of suitable accommodation compounded things as it often meant it was difficult for them to meet their parole conditions or receive mental health treatment.


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