Prisoners 'bouncing off' rehab services

·2-min read

People seeking help for mental health or substance use problems after leaving prison are more likely to be reincarcerated, a new Australian study suggests.

The study, published in the PLOS ONE journal on Thursday, examines the link between contact with treatment services and reincarceration rates among 1115 adults released from prisons in Queensland.

Those who accessed the services were more likely to return to prison than those who didn't, even when accounting for pre-existing health issues and living arrangements.

Lead researcher and Curtin University professor Stuart Kinner said contact with the services appeared to be a marker for the re-emergence of mental health or substance use problems.

"One would hope, in an ideal world, that contacting those services would help with those problems," Prof Kinner told AAP.

"But what we found is most people who did contact the services firstly didn't have a lot of contact with them, and secondly often contacted them quite late in the piece.

"It was just too little, too late ... they basically bounced off those services and didn't really have those needs addressed, and those needs spiralled out of control."

Prof Kinner said the supports available for prisoners upon their release were "inadequate and largely evidence-free", with a focus on compliance over rehabilitation.

Some service providers had contractual obligations to report drug use to authorities, he said.

Many prisoners had both mental health and substance use problems but those services remained under-funded and "highly siloed".

"You get this issue where people will try to contact a mental health service and they'll say 'well, you need to address the underlying drug and alcohol problem first'," Prof Kinner said.

"So they go to the drug and alcohol service and they say 'you have to address the mental illness first'."

Researchers believe the findings have national relevance but are working to replicate the study in other states including Western Australia.

A Productivity Commission report in January found 53 per cent of released prisoners in Australia had returned to corrective services within two years.

The nation spends more than $5 billion on prisons every year, with the imprisonment rate continuing to climb despite a fall in crime.

Prof Kinner said the issue could not be solved by the justice system alone.

"Addressing the complex needs of people released from prison is a whole of government responsibility," he said.

"They need to listen to the evidence ... and be willing to reform and improve on the basis of evidence, and have a little courage in that regard."