Inherent Problems With Post-Incarceration Services for Drug Users 

    Social service programs have a long way to go to build trust with people who use drugs who have been incarcerated. That’s the finding of a recent paper published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, which interviewed Australians about their experience of services provided to them during and after time in prison. Many of the research subjects cited inherent difficulties with parole officers as a barrier to successfully transitioning out of prisons.

    The research illustrates the extent to which lack of trust in service providers can make it difficult for this population to “navigate community re-entry service supports,” the paper notes.

    “It’s not the people. They’re not the problem.”

    Lise Lafferty, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales, and coauthor of the paper, observed that some people may look at the supports available to help previously incarcerated people reenter their communities and believe that repeat incarcerations are a personal failing. But instead, the issues lie with the supports provided—and how they treat those they work with.

    “It’s not the people. They’re not the problem,” she told Filter.

    Dr. Lafferty and her team recruited 48 participants (35 men and 13 women) with experiences of both injection drug use and previous incarceration. The participants had injected at least once per month for the past six months, and had all been incarcerated for at least three months but released within the past year, Lafferty said. They were reached through the SuperMIX study, a Burnet Institute project that has been running since 2008, and consists of a cohort of people who inject drugs in Australia.

    Some respondents were on remand (awaiting sentencing and released for time served), others were on parole, and some had returned to their communities without any conditions. All but one reported having been incarcerated on at least two occasions.

    Between September 2018 and May 2020, the researchers conducted qualitative interviews with participants about various topics surrounding pre-release planning, and the experiences they had after being released. These included experiences with case managers, opioid agonist therapy providers, employment and housing service workers, counselors, health care workers, and, notably, parole officers. While the participants discussed a wide array of staff, their answers frequently gravitated towards the parole officers, as their release, in many cases, relied on these interactions.

    The role of these “community corrections officers,” as they’re known in Australia, includes the facilitation and support of programs, supervising and monitoring, and making “decisions about breach actions in situations of non-compliance” for people involved in the justice system, according to the website of the state of New South Wales. Lafferty noted that the officers’ roles vary depending on the conditions of a person’s release. They may connect someone with counselors, for example. But often, a release order will involve them checking to see if a person has used drugs.

    “They’re not really there to help you. They’re just there to discipline you and make sure you do it properly, I suppose.”

    The study participants regularly described their interactions with these officers negatively. Many said that they felt they did not have their best interests at heart.

    “And like, they’re not really there to help you. They’re just there to discipline you and make sure you do it properly, I suppose,” a 37-year-old respondent called Ben told the researchers. “They’re there to watch over you, but they say they can help.”

    Lafferty added that there’s often a zero-tolerance attitude among parole officers when it comes to drug use. “I think the parole system needs to do some deep reflections on what the goal is,” she said. “Who are they trying to serve when they return someone to prison?”

    There were also some positive interactions with service providers. For instance, a 45-year-old respondent called Anthony recalled prison medical staff reaching out to Centrelink—Australia’s social security—on his behalf, to help him secure payments. And a 38-year-old respondent named Sarah described a case in which her drug test came back positive, but her parole officer opted to keep working with her in the community as she took steps to improve her life. “I guess that they were looking at the bigger picture,” the paper reports her saying.

    But a central problem in the case of interactions with parole officers is that these are primarily forced engagements, rather than optional services. And coerced programs—drug treatment, for example—have been shown internationally to have far less efficacy, besides being unethical. Lafferty called it “a very complicated pathway for people coming out of prison.”

    Some interviewees described certain individual parole officers as caring and compassionate, she noted. “But they work within a system and a structure of policies which are designed not to support that person.”

    “I think it is difficult, and it’s a highly vulnerable experience for people to navigate in finding out whether or not a service [or] an individual community corrections officer is going to be a trustworthy one,” she added.

    Systems and roles vary in different countries, but the broader applicability of some of the core themes of this research is clear.

    “There is an urgent need to prioritize the client in health and social service delivery in the post-release transition-to-community period,” the authors concluded in the paper, “and recognize the importance of trust in delivering effective services to people whose life histories make them highly vulnerable to marginalization.”

    Systems and roles vary in different countries, but the broader applicability of some of the core themes of this research is clear.

    In the past, Lafferty has also interviewed both health care workers and correctional officers working in prisons. Like the participants in the new study, her sense from that was that there were individuals who genuinely cared, but that the culture was not designed to support people in the system. Prioritizing the needs of people trying to reintegrate into society, based on their own choices, is essential, “otherwise, it’s not rehabilitation,” she said. 


    Photograph by Lode Van de Velde via PublicDomainPictures.Net

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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