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The prisoner population is characterised by a high burden of disease and social disadvantage, and ex-prisoners are at increased risk of death following release. Much of the excess mortality can be attributed to an increased risk of unnatural death, particularly from drug overdose; however, relatively few studies have investigated the circumstances surrounding drug-related deaths among released prisoners. This study aimed to explore and compare the circumstances of death for those who died from accidental drug-related causes to those who died from all other reportable causes.
A nationwide search of the Australian National Coroners Information System (NCIS) was conducted to identify reportable deaths among ex-prisoners from 2000 to 2007. Using a structured coding form, NCIS records for these cases were interrogated to explore causes and circumstances of death.
Coronial records for 388 deceased ex-prisoners were identified. Almost half of these deaths were a result of accidental drug-related causes (45%). The majority of accidental drug-related deaths occurred in a home environment, and poly-substance use at or around the time of death was common, recorded in 72% of drug-related deaths. Ex-prisoners who died of accidental drug-related causes were on average younger and less likely to be Indigenous, born in Australia, married, or living alone at or around the time of death, compared with those who died from all other reportable causes. Evidence of mental illness or self-harm was less common among accidental drug-related deaths, whereas evidence of previous drug overdose, injecting drug use, history of heroin use and history of drug withdrawal in the previous six months were more common.
Drug-related deaths are common among ex-prisoners and often occur in a home (vs. public) setting. They are often associated with use of multiple substances at or around the time of death, risky drug-use patterns, and even among this markedly disadvantaged group, extreme social disadvantage. These findings reflect the complex challenges facing prisoners upon release from custody and indicate a need to consider drug overdose within the wider framework of ex-prisoner experiences, so that preventive programmes can be appropriately structured and targeted.