Drug-related death following release from prison: a brief review of the literature with recommendations for practice

Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011 Dec;4(4):292-7. doi: 10.2174/1874473711104040292.


Mortality from drug-related death is a significant contributor to the loss of life of young people in the UK. Despite attention, the high death rate from this cause continues to persist. One of the most frequently cited factors involved in drug-related death (DRD) is release from prison. This review aims to examine the published literature with a view to quantifying the risk associated with recent prison release and identifying risk factors and prevention strategies. Most deaths following release from prison are caused by overdose, usually from opioid use. The risk of death is greatest within the first week of release but, when compared with the general population, continues to be elevated for several weeks. Relative risk estimates suggest that those released from prison are up to 40 times more likely to die than similar individuals from the general population. Other than gender and an association with poor mental health, there is little in the way of robust risk factors for post-release death that could be identified from the literature. In-prison pharmacological maintenance treatment with methadone and buprenorphine has been shown to reduce the rate of heroin use, in the period immediately following release, in a small number of randomised controlled trials. It is widely recognised that continuity of care, of any form, is critical in avoiding DRDs. For problem drug users, packages of education, including information on the associated risks, treatments, and recognition of DRD after release from prison, are seen as a basic minimum requirement of the prison services. However, special protocols may be required for those drug-using prisoners who have a possibility of being released at short notice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Continuity of Patient Care
  • Drug Overdose / mortality
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Opiate Substitution Treatment / methods
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / mortality*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prisons / organization & administration
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / mortality*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Time Factors