Anne Owers: Prison alcohol services fail to meet growing need

The chief inspector of prisons has called for a national alcohol strategy for prisons after uncovering a “worrying gap” between the needs of inmates with alcohol problems and the services that support them.

In a report, Alcohol Services in Prison: an unmet need, Anne Owers found that, despite growing alcohol misuse in prisons, services are limited and prisoners with alcohol problems are not consistently or reliably identified.

She warned that the system of local initiatives and locally sourced funding was no longer enough to cope with the scale of the problem, which needed to be combated in a more coherent fashion and backed by sufficient resources.

“Alcohol misuse is a growing problem, fuelling violent crime, particularly among young people,” Owers said. “Yet prisons have failed to recognise its prevalence, and are not resourced to deal with its effects.”

The report, which drew on inspection surveys of 13,000 prisoners, 72 inspection reports and surveys of drug co-ordinators in 68 jails, revealed that, in 2008-9, 19% of prisoners reported having an alcohol problem when they entered the prison, rising to 30% for young adults and 29% for women.

It said prisoners with alcohol problems were likely to be more problematic in general and needed more support.

Despite this, Owers said there was a shortage of healthcare staff with training in alcohol misuse or dual diagnosis of mental health and substance misuse problems.

Few prisons have an alcohol strategy based on a current needs analysis. But even where analyses are carried out, some are likely to underestimate need.

Among other problems, the report found the lack of specific funding was a major barrier to providing adequate services – whereas there has been ring-fenced funding for illicit drug users – and there were few community services to provide support for alcohol users on release.

Phil Wheatley, director general of the National Offender Management Service, accepted more needed to be done.

“We are working with the Department of Health on an integrated strategy, which will make improvements in prisons and probation,” he said. “We are determined to do what works in custody and the community to reduce re-offending and protect the public.”

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