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Nearly two-thirds of short-term prisoners have drug and alcohol problems and 70% reoffend within a year, new figures show

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Hardeep MatharuLondon, UK
Nearly two-thirds of short-term prisoners have drug and alcohol problems and 70% reoffend within a year, new figures show
The statistics, obtained by charity Revolving Doors, demand a radical new approach towards persistent, low-level offenders whose crimes are linked to their drug and alcohol misuse, it says

Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving sentences of less than six months have drug or alcohol problems, with almost 70% of them going on to reoffend within a year of their release, new figures from a charity campaigning to end short term jail terms have revealed.

The statistics, obtained under Freedom of Information by Revolving Doors, show that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates serving less than six months in prison at the end of December 2017, 60% reported having a problem with drugs or alcohol on arrival.

The figures also reveal that 68% of people sentenced to less than six months are reconvicted within a year after their release – equivalent to another 25,500 crimes being committed. 

The reconviction rate for sentences of less than 12 months is 64%, whereas the average reoffending rate for all prison sentences is 49%.

Revolving Doors said the figures “expose the need for a radical new approach towards a group often called ‘the revolving door’ who commit persistent low-level offences such as theft and non-violent drug offences, driven by their addiction and other challenges in their lives such as homelessness or mental health conditions”.

Short prison sentences are often considered too short for offenders with complex issues to meaningfully engage with any support to tackle them, if it is available, but long enough for inmates to be exposed to a damaging prison environment that can often add to their problems.

The charity believes community alternatives are more effective than prison for ‘revolving door’ prisoners and is calling for the Government to consider introducing a presumption against prison sentences of less than six months. Under the change, judges would still be able to impose such a sentence, they would have to explain why.

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Simon's story

Simon has served 19 prison sentences over the past 20 years.

Convicted for offences such as shoplifting, he was repeatedly given short prison terms – the longest of which was five months.

He told me that drug and alcohol issues were behind his offending, but that he was stuck, tangled in the criminal justice system, due to a lack of interventions to help him with the underlying reasons behind his substance misuse.

“What I’ve learnt is that once I picked up the first drink or drug, I was off and running and I was in the mindset where I’d be driven to keep taking more to escape, because when I came away from that I’d be left with a void within and automatically I wanted to counteract that,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit in that. You want to use to escape feeling that way.

“A lot of the time I didn’t get any interventions with regards to offending history or addressing the problems that led me to being in custody – substance misuse, alcohol, drug addiction, homelessness. These are the reasons I was breaking the law, to try and get myself somewhere to live for the night, to fund my addiction and just to survive really.

“That was the case with a lot of my prison sentences. I sometimes used to think ‘I’d wish I’d got longer’ so I could get the intervention and support I needed.

“I never once felt prison was a deterrent. People with longer sentences can probably address their issues and do the work they need to do on themselves if the help and support is there within the prison. My experience has been because they’ve always been short sentences so just as I’m getting out the door, these interventions have started to happen. It’s been fruitless.

“On many occasions I was discharged from prison with just a list of phone numbers to ring of various hostels. I found myself going into the hostel environment that was quite a depressing atmosphere and, because I’d have no support in place, I found myself going back to the way I was prior to going into custody – the same old mentality, the same old thinking, the same old behaviours because it was all I’d learnt and nurtured and known how to cope.”

Simon said he became addicted to heroin while in prison.

“Prison was horrible," he told me. "I just felt so alone and lost. I’d be going in quite fearful because you didn’t know who would be in the cell with you or who was on the wing. I just found myself consistently having to put a brave face on or a mask to cope with how I was feeling within.

“I got introduced to heroin when I was in custody. Once I tried it, I thought it was the elixir of life because of how I felt. 

"I had smoked cannabis, took amphetamines, would take LSD, was drinking, took Diazepam, whatever helped me to escape. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what heroin was all about. It was just experimentation, not knowing the full impact and the effect it could have on me. And I remember I was really ill that night. But, then I woke up feeling ‘wow, this is what I’ve been searching for the whole of my life’ and I was off and running.

“I was discharged a few days later, bought heroin on the street, it became a daily thing and then I ended up with a habit and it wasn’t long later that I was offending to fund this addiction. I ended up back in prison, going through the withdrawal process, still no intervention. It was just an aspirin that they threw at you back then, it was none of this methadone, none of that help or support with the physical symptoms.”

Until last March, Simon said he had been working as a support worker in a treatment centre, but a relapse following the breakdown of his relationship, losing his home and ending up in debt, resulted in him living in a hostel at the end of 2017.

He said he has since managed to get himself back into recovery and is now helping to develop liaison and diversion schemes for those who end up in court or in a police station and have complex needs such as substance misuse.

Simon said there were times when the courts had tried to give him drug rehabilitation orders, to serve in the community instead of going to prison, but that he was still in denial that he was an alcoholic – something that was then reinforced by the prison environment.

“You go into prison and you’re riddled with fear,” he told me. “What stops you wanting to get help is because you’re putting on a mask, a front, because you’re trying to cope with your circumstances and situation you’ve found yourself in. You cannot get vulnerable within a prison environment. It’s self-preservation. The masks come up and you don’t want to show fear.

“I’d done young offenders but the first time I went into [an adult prison], I remember that night I was like a rabbit in the headlights and I got put in this cell with this chap who was in for murder and an attempted murder. Next minute he started rolling a spliff and my instinct was 'I can’t say no to him' so I ended up having a spliff with him. You’re on edge all the time, you’re watching your back because there’s people in there who’ve got nothing to lose.”

Simon said that many in his situation need support to believe that “change is possible”.

“I thought I was set in my ways and destined to die an addict, end up with a really long prison sentence or in hospital with really ill health,” he told me. “But, we don’t have to write ourselves off and condemn ourselves to a life of hell.

“We definitely need interventions. The key for me was being put in touch with someone who had that lived experience who knows where you’re at so then you can relax and you can drop those barriers and those masks and defences.

“There’s a story behind everyone. It’s about unravelling that and then addressing it.”

***

The figures are published today alongside Revolving Doors’ new report, which highlights how elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) can help those with drug and alcohol problems who repeatedly come into contact with the police and criminal justice system. 

The report examines how PCCs in Durham and the West Midlands are treating substance misuse as a public health issue – through diversion and support, as well as schemes such as heroin-assisted treatment. Others, in Surrey and Gloucestershire, are tailoring support to groups such as young women and girls at risk of victimisation in rural areas, army veterans with alcohol problems, and complex drinkers.

“The majority of people who arrive at prison on a short sentence of just a few weeks or months report a drug or alcohol problem,” Christina Marriott, Revolving Doors' chief executive, said.

“This is robust evidence of the need to tackle problems earlier to prevent the cycle of crisis and crime. We know that a short prison sentence can exacerbate problems – a spell inside can disrupt drug treatment programmes, break up families and cause people to lose their homes.

“We know the public back new approaches and want to see investment in treatment programmes not prison places.

“By investing in drug and alcohol treatment and by taking a public health approach, Police and Crime Commissioners can help save lives.”

In a poll commissioned earlier this year by Revolving Doors, 74% of those surveyed said they thought people with drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes rather than prison, and 80% said they thought the theft of daily essentials such as food should not result in a prison term.

In May, the Justice Secretary David Gauke said that he believes people should only be sent to prison for 12 months or less in exceptional circumstances and that judges and magistrates should consider alternative to short jail terms even for persistent offenders.

The Scottish legal system already has a presumption against prison sentences of less than three months. It announced plans last September to extend this to sentences of less than 12 months.

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu

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