Increasing substance abuse among prisoners often overlooked

According to a new study, more attention should be paid to supporting prisoners at the point of release. A doctoral dissertation in sociology submitted to the University of Helsinki states that substance abuse is not necessarily detected in prison, and that support may not be available to all.

Substance abuse problems among prisoners in Finland have skyrocketed between 1980 and 2006. According to this dissertation, both drug and alcohol use and related problems have increased dramatically. When 6% of male and 3% of female prisoners were diagnosed in 1985 with a drug addiction, in 2006 the corresponding figures were 58% for men and 60% for women.

 “In 2006 more than 80% of prisoners had some form of substance abuse problem,” explains MSocSci Yaira Obstbaum-Federley, who will defend her dissertation at the Faculty of Social Sciences on 3 February.

According to the dissertation, some substance abuse problems go undetected in prison.

 “The prisoners receive unequal treatment in this matter. There aren't enough resources to conduct risk and needs assessments on most prisoners," says Obstbaum-Federley.

 If no assessment is made, the likelihood a substance abuse problem is detected decreases. Even when a substance abuse problem is identified in prison, support resources are insufficient. Full-scale substance programmes or opportunities to complete the sentence at a drug-free or rehabilitative department were offered to approximately 25% of prisoners whose substance abuse problems were detected in prison.

Substance abuse linked to repeat offences

After the 1990s, prisons began to be increasingly aware of substance abuse problems. Substance abuse issues are strongly linked to the risk of repeated offences.

 “Prisons want to address the problems of the prisoners to reduce the likelihood of repeat offences. The prisons must record all measures taken during the sentence in a sentence plan,” says Obstbaum-Federley.

Poor situation for short-term prisoners

According to the researcher, prisoners serving short sentences are in a particularly poor situation, as a comprehensive assessment of their problems is rarely conducted before incarceration or during their sentence. Their likelihood of gaining access to support measures was also significantly lower than it was among prisoners with longer sentences.

 “For prisoners with short sentences, it is particularly important to develop the support measures at the time of release. Municipalities have a key role in supporting the prisoner being released so that both repeat offences and overall human suffering are reduced. This should be taken into account also considering the upcoming sote-reform of the social and health services" states Obstbaum-Federley.

The dissertation studied medical health investigations conducted among prisoners in 1985, 1992 and 2006, along with prison registers as well as social and health care registers. In addition, prison registers were examined in terms of substance abuse support among prisoners released in 2011.


MSocSci Yaira Obstbaum-Federley will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled “From the social sector to selective individualized prison practices? A study on substance abuse among prisoners and its treatment” on 3 February 2017 at 12.15, at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences. The public defence will be held in the University of Helsinki’s Main Building, lecture hall 5, Fabianinkatu 33, 3rd floor.

The opponent will be Associate  Professor Jessica Storbjörk from the University of Stockholm, and the custos Professor Ilkka Arminen.

The dissertation will be published in the publication series of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the e-thesis service.


Further information:

Yaira Obstbaum-Federley

Tel. +358 (0) 50 5337 336