Case study

Improving care and treatment for prisoners recovering from drug and alcohol addiction

Our research has revealed a cliff edge of support for prisoners on release into the community. We are recommending the development of new approaches that link effective work in prisons with more substantial support on release

The issue

The Drug Recovery Wings (DRWs) pilots were set up to get prisoners off drugs and alcohol and reintegrated into communities on release.

While some of these pilot projects showed promise by involving dedicated staff with highly motivated prisoners, too often these prisoners faced inconsistencies in support on release, many becoming homeless or resorting to living in chaotic accommodation.

The research

We undertook a substantial evaluation of the DRWs pilots in England and Wales.

We adopted a mixed methods design, analysing 345 lengthy qualitative interviews. We obtained and analysed data from 631 detailed prisoner questionnaires in the impact evaluation and analysed the data from 1,246 prisoners taking part in the Measuring the Quality of Prison Life survey.

We found that DRWs did not universally focus on abstinence-focused recovery with the nature and intensity of therapeutic input varying greatly.

Some of the DRWs represented promising models that improved prisoners’ quality of life. The success of these DRWs appeared to be a mixture of physical separation from the rest of the prison, protection of beds for people engaged in the therapeutic programme, a strong sense of community and good relations between staff and prisoners.

Throughout our analysis a central theme was the lack of support for prisoners on release. Most of our project sample reported being met by no one at the prison gate and only six reported receiving professional support after release. 

The outcome

Our evaluation has led to recommendations for the development of new approaches to supporting prisoners on release into the community, linking effective work in prisons with more substantial support on release. 

To further develop these ideas we obtained funding through an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account grant to bring together a group of experts in the new Ex-Prisoners Recovering from Addiction Working Group (EPRA). Its aim is to produce evidence-based, cost-effective through-care 'blueprints' to support substance-misusing prisoners through prison and on release.

The findings of our evaluation have been central to the design of the new incentivised substance free living wings pilots, part of former Prisons Minister Rory Stewart’s 10 prisons project aimed at reducing drug use and violence.

The principles upon which these wings are based were built directly on the evidence of our research.

Additional information

Featured researcher

Charlie Lloyd

Charlie has a background in criminology. He now teaches on criminal justice and substance use while undertaking research on prison and police responses to drug use.

View profile

Featured researcher

Sharon Grace

Sharon conducts research predominantly in the field of women, criminal justice and drug use. Her research interests include victimisation, illicit drug use, criminal careers and administration of justice.

View profile

Featured researcher

Geoff Page

Dr Page has particular interest in researching marginalised drug using offenders. His research projects draw on his prior clinical experience as an addictions counsellor working with a criminal justice caseload.

View profile