Thursday, November 8, 2007

Push to help prisoners beat their addictions

Four out of five prisoners have alcohol or drug problems but only a fraction have access to treatment, says outgoing Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor.

The Drug Foundation says a fresh approach is needed to stem drug abuse among offenders, giving them treatment when they first arrive behind bars and keeping it going after they leave.

Speaking at an addiction conference in Auckland yesterday, Mr O'Connor cited research showing 89 per cent of serious offenders were under the influence of drugs or alcohol leading up to their offence, and 80 per cent of inmates have had a substance abuse problem at some point in their lives compared with 13 per cent of the general population.

"Despite the significant relationship between substance abuse and crime, only a small proportion of offenders with substance abuse problems actually receive treatment."

However, the Government was taking the problem seriously, by expanding drug treatment units in prisons, he told the combined Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs and Cutting Edge addiction conference.

A new treatment unit was opened at Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt last month and another is due to open at Spring Hill Prison in Waikato in July 2008, boosting the system's capacity to treat about 500 people a year. There are 8000 prisoners nationally.

In a pilot programme, health professionals will work at police stations and in courts to identify offenders with substance abuse problems and help refer them for treatment.

"Currently there is no national framework or standard for court-ordered AOD (alcohol and other drug) assessments, but work to develop this is nearly complete," Mr O'Connor said.

Drug Foundation senior policy adviser Keriata Stuart said the Government had to address the "huge problem" of drug abuse among offenders.

She said more "seamless care" was needed: assessing people when they first entered the criminal justice system, giving them the full range of rehabilitation services and following them up after they left prison.

Prison at least offered a captive market, she said.

"It's not an ideal place to create a therapeutic environment but it is an opportunity - people are very focused on making changes and if they have access to assessment and rehab services and continued support, they can succeed."

The foundation is also pushing for more harm-reduction programmes (including needle exchanges and extending the prison methadone programme to new clients) and more specific interventions for young people, women and other groups.

source: Dominion Post

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