Rates of substance misuse, psychosis and homelessness are significantly higher among Irish prisoners than among the general population. According to researchers at the University of Limerick, half of the prison population have an alcohol or drug disorder.

The research, which is the first systematic review of Irish prisoners in this area, is published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine.

Examining 10 separate studies, researchers found that the prevalence of alcohol and substance use disorders stood at 51%, which was substantially higher than the general population.

“The burden of harmful use or dependence on alcohol and substances in Irish prisons is substantial”, said the authors of the report.

Of more concern, is that drug and alcohol misuse are seen as key risk factors for reoffending. Prison and probation services have invested in treatment programmes, according to the report, but services vary across the country.

“In the Irish context, treatment programmes for women, those specific to alcohol misuse, as well as those focused on novel drugs of misuse, are seen as gaps in provision”, said the authors.

The startling figures on drug use in Irish prisons are mirrored in the UK where the Prison Service there has raised concerns about harm to staff and healthcare professionals. A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlights the widespread use of Spice, which is putting nurses called in to treat inmates at risk.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) says in some places 50 inmates are being treated each week, and some nurses have been left unwell after treating prisoners who have taken the illegal drug. One lost consciousness after inhaling the fumes and had to be taken to an accident and emergency unit. The problem is that nurses and healthcare assistants are often the first on the scene when prisoners need emergency care. They are also expected to enter cells before any smoke is clear.

The RCN says staff should be allowed to assess the danger of the situation before rushing in and is calling on the Prison Service to do more to combat the problem.

A Prison Service spokesman said, “The best way to keep staff and inmates safe is to keep drugs out of our prisons”.

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