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In prison, just listening to a person can heal deep emotional wounds and become a first step towards recovery from alcohol or substance use. WHO shares the story of Bruce who reflects on his experience of dealing with alcohol addiction in a prison environment.
The story will be highlighted at WHO’s 71st Regional Committee for Europe meeting where policy-makers from 53 countries will discuss new policies for better health in prisons to ensure equivalence of care and more collaborative recovery projects between prisons and communities.
“I started to abuse alcohol in my mid-20s,” says Bruce. “I worked in a hospital in Edinburgh, in a unit that treated people with alcohol problems. And I saw how my drinking partners came in. I asked them for secrecy, so they didn’t say they knew me. I didn’t want alcohol to influence my career.”
His personal story shows how easily addiction may lead to entering a prison system. Be it alcohol or drug use, it leads to behaviours that put people’s health at risk, physically and mentally.
“I lost my job and in just 6 months I lost everything I had – my flat, my fiancée, the cottage I had put a mortgage on. Everything was sold, even my clothes. The descent was very rapid,” explains Bruce. “At that time, it didn’t matter for me where I got money for my drinking. So, I started to commit crimes.”
Alcohol consumption is a social norm in many societies and countries across the WHO European Region. In detention facilities, the risks to physical and mental health associated with alcohol consumption may not be recognized. Therefore, due to limited access to recovery services and unrecorded alcohol in some prisons, the inmates suffering from alcohol addiction become even more vulnerable to health risks that are higher in prisons compared to the outside community.
Bruce feels strongly that prison authorities should dare to care for people with all forms of addiction living in prisons. He is now a volunteer who supports detention facilities to establish systems to support recovery in prisons as well as aftercare to support community reintegration.
“Everyone has a right to health care, and it doesn’t matter who the person is,” Bruce adds.
Recalling the state of health care in prison facilities years ago, Bruce calls it rudimentary. But then things began to change.
“This had to do with the authorities changing their attitude towards people with addiction. Now prison authorities realize: ‘We have to do something’,” says Bruce.
“Today, there are clinical psychologists, drug and alcohol recovery practitioners from different organizations. There are opportunities to organize one-on-one meetings. There is an environment that leads to good mental health for inmates.”
Prison authorities listen to the voices of prisoners who struggle with addiction. If an inmate does not want to go to the recovery center, psychologists go to the person. Recovery specialists try to reach out to people who need the feeling of security and may want to share their painful experience.
“That mere fact that somebody listens is a great healer. And it also helps to break down the barriers. The stigma is slowly being removed,” says Bruce.
Bruce’s experience tells him that the situation is improving, with more recognition of problems related to addiction and support for recovery by criminal justice agencies.
“I’ve seen it in other countries. In Poland or Bulgaria, for example, every person in prison sees the psychologist. If a person has alcohol or drug issues, they can get the help they need. And it’s what actually happens worldwide,” he adds. “Countries today are talking with each other; they are after the best practice. It still needs to be improved. But as long as we can get it going, this process will be positive from the prisons’ health perspective. We can strive for perfection.”
To protect the health of the people living in prisons with addiction, WHO developed several effective tools for detention authorities to use. To find out more, refer to the links below.