Freed Inmates Often Killed by Drugs

By Will Godfrey 08/31/11

All over the world, people who've recently been released from prison frequently die from drug overdose, research confirms.

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Released prisoners are at hugely increased risk of dying from drug overdoses, confirmed new research released in Australia to coincide with today's International Overdose Awareness Day—such deaths occur often all over the world. The study showed that almost 140 people died from drug-related causes within a year of release from Australian jails in 2007/2008. One of the authors, Dr. Stuart Kinner, said "Drug overdoes remains a leading cause of death among recently released prisoners in Australia, with the greatest risk of death in the weeks immediately following release." He urged easier access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to cut the death rate. Naloxone "overdose kits" for released prisoners were also recommended by the UK government's drug advisers this April—but ran into attacks from critics who argued that such measures, at £15 per person, were too expensive for taxpayers to fund and might encourage heroin users to throw caution to the wind, knowing they had an antidote to hand. There are many similar fatalities in the US. One New England study, for example, found released prisoners were 3.5 times more likely to die than other people over the first two years—with ODs the biggest killer. And in the first two weeks after release, ex-prisoners' death risk was a massive 12.7 times higher than the norm. The World Health Organization's European Office claims no less than a 50-fold increased chance of OD death in those vital first two weeks. The difficulty of adjusting to a new environment is a factor in this—just as it is with the high vulnerability to suicide of prisoners who are newly introduced to jail. WHO says the decrease in tolerance that may be caused by incarceration also raises the risk, adding there's evidence that opioid substitution treatment and early interventions can save lives. Lowering drug-related deaths among released prisoners is a key test of different societies' willingness to help some of their most vulnerable members, who have already served their time.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.