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Study: Risk of Murder, Overdose and Suicide Higher for Recently Released Jail Prisoners in New York City

A study by researchers with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) supports reforms long urged by prisoner advocates: more mental health and substance abuse treatment, and less incarceration.

After studying over 155,200 people released from New York City jails between 2001 and 2005, the researchers found that former prisoners were twice as likely as other people to die from homicide or a drug overdose. The risks were especially high within the first two weeks after release, with death rates five to eight times greater than non-former prisoners during the same two-week period.

According to the study, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, whites and people who were homeless before going to jail also had an elevated risk of suicide.

The findings, DHMH researchers said, were in line with similar studies in the United Kingdom and Australia, and illustrate the need for more mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment – not only in jails but also for the formerly incarcerated.

“You may not have a job, you may not have an apartment” after being released from jail, said Dr. Josiah D. Rich, the director of Brown University’s Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island. “Your social relationships may be up in the air.”

The stress upon release is sometimes too great for former prisoners, who are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and major depression, than people who have not been incarcerated. Estimates indicate that a significant number of prisoners have mental health issues and most have a drug or alcohol problem.

“The largest mental health facility in New York City is Rikers Island,” Rich said, referring to the city’s largest jail. Yet just a quarter of those held in prisons and only 7% of those in jails receive treatment or counseling during their incarceration.

As a result, former prisoners often revert to self-destructive behaviors to cope with the instability that accompanies freedom. For example, if opiate addicts – users of heroin, as well as oxycodone and hydrocodone – return to their addictions after release, it’s a major problem, Rich said.

“If you start using again at the same levels as before,” he explained, “you’re likely to overdose.”

Of the former prisoners studied by DHMH researchers – all of them over 16 years old who spent at least one night in a New York City jail – 1,149 died following their release sometime during the five-year study period. That number includes 219 drug-related deaths and an equal number of homicides. Released prisoners were, on average, twice as likely to die from drugs or homicide than people who had not served time in jail; there were also 35 suicides during the study period.

Rich said that people who are only in the jail system for a short time can still be helped, given enough resources. “You can sit down with someone and pretty quickly see if they have an opiate addiction,” he noted.

The best way to assist those who serve longer stints in jail, Rich argued, is even more obvious. “The answer,” he said, “is to figure out how we can stop incarcerating so many people.”


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