Most prisoners are highly likely to re-offend once released into the community and as a consequence, have a high rate of return to prison. This is a costly cycle: in 2004-05 $1.7 billion was spent on 120 custodial facilities housing a daily average of 24,092 offenders. Given increasing imprisonment rates these costs will continue to escalate unless we actively seek to prevent re-offending among prisoners post-release. Although this particular study is based on a relatively small non-random sample, the findings provide important insights for policy makers and practitioners seeking to implement throughcare programs. Of note is that within an average of 34 days post release, 64 percent of males and 37 percent of females report using illicit drugs, particularly cannabis and amphetamines. There were also significant levels of risky alcohol use and elevated levels of physical and mental distress. Within one year 19 percent of the group had been reincarcerated. Effective crime control strategies will ultimately fail if they do not include pre- and post- release intervention programs designed to reduce the likelihood of re-offending among prisoners.
At the last prison census 19 percent of prisoners were serving sentences of less than 12 months and 39 percent were serving sentences of less than two years; over a third were incarcerated for nonviolent property or drug -related offences (ABS 2005). There are currently no reliable data on the number of prisoners released from secure custody each year, but given the high proportion of prisoners serving short sentences, 44,000 releases per year may be a reasonable estimate (Baldry et al. 2003).
The majority of released prisoners return to custody at some point (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003) and many re-offend within a relatively short period of time. Across Australia, 32 percent of prisoners released in 2000-01 returned to custody within two years, with another 17 percent receiving a non-custodial order (SCRGSP 2004). The UK Home Office has identified a number of factors thought to influence re-offending including social disadvantage, drug and alcohol misuse, and mental and physical health (Great Britain. Social Exclusion Unit 2002). Prisoners released to the community are distinguished by extreme social disadvantage: a recent Australian longitudinal study of 238 ex-prisoners found that at least 21 percent were homeless, 84 percent were unemployed, and over 50 percent reported having outstanding debts. Each of these factors significantly predicted re-incarceration (Baldry et al. 2003).
Meta-analyses have identified substance misuse as a robust predictor of recidivism (Dowden & Brown 2002; Gendreau, Little & Goggin 1996), but relatively little is known about the prevalence of illicit drug use among prisoners prior to and during incarceration, and even less is known about patterns of use post-release. Retrospective studies in Australia (Butler & Milner 2003; Johnson 2004; Makkai & Payne 2003) and overseas (Great Britain. Social Exclusion Unit 2002; Shewan et al. 2001 ; 2000) suggest high rates of substance use among prisoners prior to and during incarceration, but few studies have explored patterns of use post-release.
An understanding of patterns of substance use among recently released prisoners is important for at least two reasons. First, given the well-established link between substance use and crime, the high proportion of prisoners incarcerated for drug-related offences, and the high rate of recidivism among ex-prisoners, an understanding of substance use among this group would inform pre-release programs, post-release service delivery and crime prevention policies. In particular, such information would assist in the evidence based application of the principle of throughcare, which emphasises continuity of service provision from the custodial to the community setting (Borzycki & Baldry 2003; Burrows et al. …