More than two-thirds of unnatural deaths in Irish prisons are associated with the use of illicit drugs. And many cases involve people who overdose while on temporary release. The investigation was commissioned by the National Suicide and Harm Prevention Steering Group and reviewed the deaths of prisoners between 2009–2014. Coroners’ findings were analysed, including post-mortem tests, to assess whether drugs played a role.

In all there were 69 deaths in custody, of which 38 were deemed not a result of natural causes. Sixteen cases involved drug overdoses. Another eight deaths, all due to hanging, were linked to drug taking. Drug tests showed that two other deaths were associated with the use of drugs.

The drugs involved in the deaths included non-prescribed benzodiazepines, opiates, cocaine, cannabis, codeine and other psychoactive substances. Many also had alcohol and prescription drugs in their system.

The fact that 14 of the 38 prisoners died while on temporary release suggests that imprisonment may offer partial protection, the authors noted. Continuity of care post-release is crucially important, they said.

The study, part-funded by the Samaritans, proposes increased drug treatment interventions in prisons and for the recently released. Rates of substance misuse are significantly higher among Irish prisoners than among the general population.

“We suggest friends and family members who visit prisons should be made aware that bringing in contraband is a major contributory factor to unnatural deaths in custody, including deaths by hanging.”

The report suggested a focus on improving measures, such as screened visits, to reduce access to illicit drugs. Its publication comes in the same week that the Court of Appeal rejected Brian Rattigan’s application to have his drug dealing conviction quashed. The 37-year-old is the first person to be found guilty of charges connected to drug dealing while in prison.

The Special Criminal Court agreed with the prosecution case that Rattigan was the director of a drugs gang conducting a €1 million heroin deal. Sentencing Rattigan to 17 years in prison, Mr Justice Paul Butler said the Special Criminal Court noted the very frightening evidence of drugs expert Detective Sergeant Brian Roberts, who told the court of the effect heroin had on society as well as the alarming 3972 drug-related deaths in Ireland between 2004 and 2010.

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