The NHS is failing to provide life saving Naloxone at the point of release from prison in the majority of prisons

Those leaving prison having had an opiate problem are seriously at risk of having a life threatening overdose or dying as a result of one. Both Public Health England and the Government have been clear in their recommendation that all local areas need to have appropriate Naloxone provision in place. However, prisons have so far failed to implement provision at the point of release across much of the prison estate. This is putting lives at risk.

Blenheim workers have found it is rare for any of our service users to be released from prison having been provided with Naloxone, medication which is literally life-saving in the case of overdose.

Public Health England’s strategy to reduce drug related deaths identifies discharge from prison as the point of maximum risk of overdose and maintaining contact with treatment services as the key intervention to stem the rise in drug related deaths. Naloxone is the emergency antidote for overdoses caused by heroin and other opiates/opioids (such as methadone, morphine and fentanyl).The main life-threatening effect of heroin and other opiates is to slow down and stop breathing. Naloxone blocks this effect and reverses the breathing difficulties.


Read more in Blenheim’s report – ‘Failure by Design and Disinvestment: the Critical State of Custody-Community Transitions


The NHS is responsible for provision of treatment services in prison including Naloxone but refuses to take a national view. At one point the NHS even argued that as the prisoner would use Naloxone outside of the prison it was not their responsibility and each local authority should arrange to fund, provide, and negotiate arrangements with prisons for the supply of Naloxone at the point of release. To expect them to do this with more than one hundred prisons is something that anyone can see is ludicrous. Currently the NHS says it is for local NHS areas to decide.

It has proved difficult to get NHS England to provide clarity about what is going on as they are reluctant, or unable to do so when asked. Below are a couple of responses given to questions by Grahame Morris MP that will have been prepared by officials for the Government’s response.

Question – To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, how many and what proportion of prisoners with a history of opioid misuse were provided with Naloxone when released from prison in the latest year for which information is available; and from which prisons those prisoners were released.

Reply in May 18 – “Information on how many prisoners are provided with naloxone when released from prison in England is not currently available. This data is due to be published in 2019”

Question – To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will bring forward legislative proposals to make the supply of the opioid-overdose antidote Naloxone to all at-risk prisoners upon their release a mandatory requirement for prisons.

Reply – “Naloxone has a vital role in saving lives and the Government is committed to widening its use in England.”

There is no national programme that mandates the supply of Naloxone for at-risk prisoners on their release, and the Government does not have any plans to bring forward legislation to make this a mandatory requirement for prisons.

The commissioning of substance misuse treatment for prisoners is the responsibility of health and justice commissioning teams in 10 of NHS England’s area teams, supported by a central health and justice team. The Government expects commissioners and providers of substance misuse services in prisons and in the community to work together closely in respect to prisoners being released from custody to ensure seamless transfers of care.

So according to NHS England they have not got a clue about what is happening and their best estimate is they may know in 6 months time. Or as I suspect, they are putting off releasing the information and will do so for the foreseeable future. How long does it take to ask prisons the following three questions?

  1. Are you providing Naloxone at point of release?
  2. Are you providing Naloxone and overdose training?
  3. How many Naloxone kits have you given out?

Well let me try and help them out a bit. There are currently at least 36 prisons in England and Wales claiming to give out naloxone on release, a low percentage. There may also be others that I and my sources are unaware of, however just because someone at a prison says they are providing Naloxone it doesn’t mean they are handing out many or any kits. Whilst not an English or Welsh example, in Scotland, where all prisons are supposed to be providing Naloxone at the point of release, the position is depressing. In one prison in the last year only 24 kits had been handed out and in another none had been handed out. Operational difficulties are often cited as the reason for this, a common excuse which covers most prison failures.

On the NHS website it says:

  • NHS England Health and Justice teams commission to the ‘principle of equivalence’ which means that the health needs of a population constrained by their circumstances are not compromised and that they receive an equal level of service as that offered to the rest of the population.
  • NHS England health and justice commissioning supports effective links with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and Local Authorities to support the delivery of social care within secure settings and the continuity of care as individuals move in and out of them.

The failure to provide naloxone at point of release, along with the breakdown in continuity of care (documented in response after response to the ACMD in relation to custody to community transitions) demonstrate a clear failure to live up to the statements above. I am starting to wonder how much stigma and prejudice underlies this failure. I am sure diabetics requiring insulin do not suffer the in the same way.

So to recap, why does Naloxone at the point of release matter? There is an international evidence base about the high risk of overdose and death of opiate using prisoners, in particular in the period immediately post-release. A recent large scale Norwegian study¹ examined the deaths of all prisoners in the first six months of their release over a fifteen year period (1 Jan 2000 to 31 December 2014); the sample comprised 92,663 prisoners released a total of 153,604 times. The study found that overdose was the most common reason for death at every time period within the first six months post-release.

During the first week post-release, overdose deaths accounted for 85% of all deaths, with accidents accounting for 6% and suicide for 3%. Overdose deaths peaked during the first days post-release, and thereafter declined gradually during the first month post-release. During the second week post-release, the total number of deaths approximately halved (versus first week), with overdose deaths accounting for 68% of all deaths. During weeks 3–4 and months 2–6, overdose death accounted for 62% and 46% of all deaths, respectively.

The authors suggest that the high proportion of overdoses in the immediate period following incarceration might reflect prison settings where released inmates typically have a history of heroin or opioid use, and may also be particularly high in settings where polydrug injection is a common mode of administration. For several years, Norway, like the UK, has been ranked as one of the European countries with the highest rates of overdose mortality, often explained by high rates of injecting drug use and an ageing polydrug-using population.

Recent UK research² also found that the first week following prison release was the period of highest risk of mortality with drug-related deaths the main cause.

By now it will come as no surprise when I say we do not have an accurate figure of the number of drug-related deaths of recently released prisoners in England and Wales.

Please NHS, help sort this out and start preventing these needless deaths.


Read more about Blenheim’s campaign here


References

¹Anne Bukten, Marianne Riksheim Stavseth, Svetlana Skurtveit, Aage Tverdal, John Strang & Thomas Clausen (2017) High risk of overdose death following release from prison: variations in mortality during a 15‐year observation period. Addiction Volume112, Issue 8 August 2017 Pages 1432-1439.

² Phillips, H. Gelsthorpe, L. & Padfield, N. (2017) Non-custodial deaths: Missing, ignored or unimportant. Criminology and Criminal Justice 

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