Persistence of drug use during imprisonment: relationship of drug type, recency of use and severity of dependence to use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine in prison

Addiction. 2006 Aug;101(8):1125-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2006.01475.x.


Aim: To investigate the persistence of use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine drugs during imprisonment, and to identify factors associated with increased levels of persistence.

Design: The use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine by current prison inmates has been examined and, in particular, the relationship between drug use within prison and the type of drug used prior to imprisonment, recency of use and severity of dependence.

Setting and participants: A randomly selected sample of 1009 adult male prisoners in 13 prisons in England and Wales during 1994/95; structured confidential interviews conducted by independent research staff. Enquiry about prior use of heroin, cocaine or amphetamine focused on three time-periods (ever, last year and last month pre-prison) and the use of these drugs during the first month of imprisonment.

Findings: A total of 557 (55%) of the 1009 prisoners had used previously one of the three drugs selected for study: 58% had used heroin, 69% cocaine and 75% amphetamine. More than half (59%; 327/557) had used these drugs in the month before the current imprisonment. Drug use in prisons was most likely to occur among those who had used in the month prior to imprisonment. The persistence of heroin use in prison occurred more frequently (70%) than use of cocaine (20%) or amphetamine (15%). Of those using heroin pre-imprisonment, 67% considered they were dependent, compared to 15% and 22%, respectively, for cocaine and amphetamine users.

Conclusions: Changes in the drug-taking behaviour of drug users after imprisonment vary according to the type of drug being taken. Prisoners were much more likely to continue to use heroin than either cocaine or amphetamines while in prison. Heroin was most likely to be used by those who had been using heroin during the immediate pre-imprisonment period, and particularly by the two-thirds of heroin users who considered themselves dependent. In view of the high prevalence of prior use of these drugs by individuals currently imprisoned, continuing attention is required to study of their behaviour and of the impact of interventions that may be introduced during or following their incarceration.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease
  • England / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Wales / epidemiology