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Today’s prison reform announcement from the Prime Minister comes at an important time for prisons, that have been facing increasing pressures for many years. As the departing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, put it – never before has drug use in prisons been such a significant threat to their security or to the chance of true rehabilitation for offenders.

The Prime Minister was right to highlight both substance misuse and mental health as critical aspects to the reform the prison system so desperately needs. But they should not be regarded as separate issues, with parallel services.

At RAPt we are only too aware of the worrying extent of mental health problems amongst prisoners, and specifically, the close relationship between mental health and substance misuse. Our own research of over 600 prisoners shows that people with both mental health and substance misuse problems are 9% more likely to reoffend on release. We also found in research on over 6,000 prisoners that those with drug and alcohol problems are more likely to have mental health problems than both the general prison population and the wider population as a whole. This research also found that over 70% of prisoners with addiction problems have symptoms of trauma – which is the most prevalent mental health issue amongst our clients.

It is very clear that the relationship between mental health and addiction is a key factor in the high rates of reoffending, and we have to do more to use a period of imprisonment to intervene.

We therefore introduced a unique element to our addiction treatment programme, called Seeking Safety, which addresses trauma and substance misuse at the same time. The treatment programme was already evidenced as working well, so when the number of clients who completed the full programme (free from drugs and alcohol) increased by an impressive 10% following the introduction of this new module, we were convinced of the huge potential of integrating mental health and substance misuse programmes.

Fundamentally, we know that tackling the two issues of substance misuse and mental health – both frighteningly prevalent amongst prisoners – is critical if we are to help prisoners overcome their own difficulties to build a new life, but also, and importantly, in reducing reoffending.

It is heartening to hear our Prime Minister talk so passionately about his commitment to ensuring our prisoners have a real chance to transform their lives away from crime and to rebuild reformed and productive lives. But now the work starts in earnest to ensure the details of these new approaches make the most of this important opportunity to change the lives of some of the most disaffected and disadvantaged – if we are to reap the benefits for them, their families and all our communities.

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