Drug users in the criminal justice system: prisoners

National routine information on type and patterns of drug use as well as its consequences among prisoners is rare. Most of the data available in the EU come from ad hoc studies carried out at local level using samples of prisoners that vary considerably in size but are generally small. In addition, prisons studied are often not representative of the prison system as a whole and a lack of repeat surveys prevents analysis of trends in most countries. These factors make extrapolation of results very difficult.

Figure 18

Estimates of lifetime prevalence of drug users in prison in the EU

item (1) Drug users (ever used) | item (2) Intravenous drug users (ever injected)
Figure 18


Whenever possible, data refer to adult prisoners, although some figures might also include young offenders. Values shown in the figure were derived from the following data. Caution in drawing comparisons is necessary as definitions, periods of reference and methodologies vary widely between surveys and countries. Most data come from local ad hoc studies (not comparable). For additional information on each survey, see Statistical Table 30: Proportion of drug users among prisoners in the EU countries and Norway.

Details by country.


However, studies show that, compared with the wider community, drug users are over-represented among the prison population (47). The proportion of inmates in the EU reporting ever having used any illicit drug varies between 29 % and 86 % (more than 50 % in most studies) depending on the prisons and countries (Figure 18). As in the wider community, cannabis is the most frequently used drug, but several studies also show high levels of a history of heroin use (50 % of inmates or more in some cases).

According to several studies, prisoners reporting more regular and/or harmful use, such as injecting drug use, regular use or dependence, represent 6–69 % of the prison population. In particular, several studies in the EU show that around one-third of adult male prisoners are drug injectors (Bird and Rotily, 2002).

Most drug users stop or reduce their drug use after imprisonment. However, some continue to use drugs, and others only start on incarceration. Drug use within prison is reported by 12–60 % of inmates and regular drug use by 10–42 %. Between 3 % and 34 % of the prison population have ever injected drugs while incarcerated (Figure 20 OL).

(47) See Statistical Table 30: Proportion of drug users among prisoners in the EU countries and Norway.