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Alcohol and the prison system

The Home Office estimates alcohol-related crime to cost UK taxpayers £11bn per year, at 2010/11 prices.[1] But the wider costs of alcohol-related crime and disorder to society may be even higher, because solutions to the issue focus only on those offenders who admit they have a problem.

Alcohol and the criminal justice system: the scale of the problem

It has been estimated that around three-quarters of those who come into contact with the UK's criminal justice system (those in police custody, probation settings and the prison system) have a problem with alcohol, and over a third are dependent on alcohol.[2] Many prisoners surveyed have indicated they had been drinking at the time of committing their offence. Figures ranging from 41%–70% have been reported.[3], [4]

A review of evidence of alcohol use disorders in the criminal justice system, ranging from 2000-14, found that:

“... between 64 and 88% of individuals in the police [sic] custody setting had an alcohol use disorder. In the magistrates court this was 95%; 53-69% in the probation setting and between 13 and 86% in the prison system.”[5]

According to estimates from the National Offender Management Service, based on completed Offender Assessment System (OASys) assessments, 25,153 offenders on supervision by the probation service had alcohol misuse issues in the 2011/12 financial year (see figure 6). Although this represents a significant drop in the annual number of offenders who have experienced problems with alcohol, it must be noted that a full OASys assessment is not required with all offenders, and therefore the actual number of offenders with alcohol misuse problems is almost certainly higher than the recorded figures suggest.


Data published by the Ministry of Justice in 2013 showed that 63% of prisoners who drank alcohol in the four weeks before custody would be classified as binge drinkers under NHS Choices measures.[6]

In 2014, 1,091 prisoners in England and Wales were found in the possession of alcohol. Initial data for 2015 (up to 31 October) shows that 1,045 prisoners were found in the possession of alcohol, although this increase may be somewhat due to improved recording practices.[7]

Is this being addressed? Current strategies and room for improvement

A thematic review published in 2010 by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlighted the failure of the Prison Service adequately to address the problems of alcohol misuse in prisons, despite repeated warnings by the Prison Reform Trust about its harmful effect on reoffending rates and the growing prevalence of alcohol-related crime.[8] The review, drawing on inspection surveys of 13,000 prisoners, 72 inspection reports and surveys of drug coordinators in 68 prisons, revealed that in 2008/09, 19% of prisoners reported having an alcohol problem when they entered the prison, rising to 30% for young adults and 29% for women.[9]

Yet, at every stage in prison, prisoners' needs were less likely to be either assessed or met than those with illicit drug problems. Alcohol problems were not consistently or reliably identified and few prisons even had an alcohol strategy based on a current needs analysis.[10]

A 2009 review conducted by the National Probation Service into alcohol-related interventions in prisons established that their effective commissioning and delivery had been hampered at a national level by a lack of:

  • resources and dedicated funding for the provision of alcohol interventions and treatment
  • guidance and protocols to inform the targeting of available interventions
  • appropriate and accessible alcohol treatment provision
  • probation staff confidence, skills and knowledge around alcohol-related issues
  • success engaging and influencing local commissioners to afford greater priority and resources to work with alcohol-misusing offenders

The report concluded that the resulting shortage of British research evidence means there is currently limited scope for developing empirically informed guidance to instruct senior probation managers and practitioners on key issues.[11]

The Coalition Government acknowledged the importance of prisons as places for rehabilitation and tackling dependency on alcohol. In its Alcohol Strategy, there are plans to develop an alcohol interventions pathway and outcome framework in 4 prisons, to inform the commissioning of a range of effective interventions in all types of prison. From April 2013, they also proposed to grant responsibility for commissioning health services and facilities for those in prisons and other places of prescribed detention to the NHS Commissioning Board (NHSCB).[12] As of October 2013, a National Partnership Agreement was reached between NHS England, the National Offender Management Service and Public Health England “for the co-commissioning and delivery of healthcare services in prisons in England.”[13]


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[1] (July 2013), Written evidence from the Department of Health (GAS 01), in ‘3rd report – Government's Alcohol Strategy’, Health Committee <>

[2] Hansard (July 2016), ‘Alcoholic Drinks: Misuse:Written question – 41699’


[3] Scottish Prison Service (March 2016), ‘Prisoners Survey 2015’, p. 3 <>

[4] Addaction (2014), ‘The Alcohol and Crime Commission Report’, p. 9 <>

[5] Newbury-Birch D., McGovern R., Birch J., O'Neill G., Kaner H., Sondhi A., Lynch K., (2016), ‘A rapid systematic review of what we know about alcohol use disorders and brief interventions in the criminal justice system’, International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 12 (1) pp. 57–70

[6] Hansard (November 2015), ‘Prisoners: Alcoholism:Written question – 17328’ <>

[7] Hansard (November 2015), ‘Prisons: Alcoholic Drinks:Written question – 17683’ <>

[8] Community Justice Portal (February 2010), 'Prison Service Failing to Address Growing Problem of Alcohol Misuse in Prisons', from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (February 2010), 'Alcohol services in prisons: an unmet need' <>

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] McSweeney T., et al (September 2009), 'Evidence-based practice? The National Probation Service's work with alcohol-misusing offenders', Institute for Criminal Policy Research, School of Law, King's College, London, Ministry of Justice, pp. iii and iv

[12] Secretary of State for the Home Department (March 2012), ‘The Government’s Alcohol Strategy’, HM Government, p. 26

[13] National Offender Management Service (July 2014), ‘Healthcare for offenders’ <>