Help For Offenders

People who are in trouble with the law (offenders) often have an alcohol or drug problem. Helping offenders to stop their alcohol and other drug use or addiction can make a big difference in helping a person to reconnect with individual goals and stay connected with their community . There are programs available to help prevent re-offending as well as services that support offenders while they are in prison and after release from prison.

Court diversion programs

Court diversion programs give offenders the opportunity to move out of the criminal justice system into treatment programs to address their alcohol or drug related issues. These can include police-issued diversion programs, conditional bail and court ordered programs to encourage the offender to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour, such as alcohol or other drug use.

Many diversion programs are available only for less serious offences (e.g. shoplifting). The types of programs offered are different in each state or territory. The Knowledge Centre has a listing of alcohol and drug programs for offenders which can be filtered by state or territory or contact the office of your local legal service (or your Department of Justice or Attorney-General) to check what options are available in your area and which offences are eligible.

Entering Prison

When a person with alcohol or other drug problems goes to prison it can be a chance for them to try to stop using. However, it can also be a difficult time because they may have health issues and many other concerns. It can be difficult to find out what help is available and how to access it.

General advice for people entering prison with alcohol and other drug issues

  • When arriving in prison a health assessment is usually done within 24 hours. This is a good time to mention any major health issues and whether you expect to experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • A good source of information about the type of health services available in prison is the Nurse Unit Manager or Nurse in Charge in the prison health centre. This person can usually be contacted on the prison’s general phone number.
  • Most prisons will have an Indigenous Liaison Officer or support officers who may be able to provide information about relevant cultural supports as well as about other health services available.
  • It is common for people to be offered drugs while in prison. Using drugs in prison can result in greater physical, legal, emotional and health problems. The drug trade in prison is associated with violence and standover tactics as it is in the outside world.

General advice for people entering prison with a mental illness

  • It is important that prison health staff know if you have a mental illness when you enter prison.
  • It is very helpful to have a short letter from a doctor or service that states your condition and what treatment is required.
  • If you are not coping in prison, or something is affecting your wellbeing, contact the prison health service, usually the Nurse Unit Manager, and let them know your concern.

The health care of a person in prison is the responsibility of the state or territory the prison is in. Australia uses national and international guidelines for delivery of health services.

These guidelines state that:

  • a person should have the same access to health care in prison as the general population
  • the health of a person in prison should not be made worse by their incarceration.

This can be helpful to know when speaking up for a family member or someone you are concerned about in prison.

Transition back to the community – leaving prison

Organisations such as the

in New South Wales provide a range of services for people and their families who come into contact with the justice system. They can help with alcohol and other drug dependence as well as other issues. For people who are leaving prison, it is important they receive support to:

  • find stable housing
  • develop skills to secure employment
  • help them reconnect with community.

If the offender can get themselves free from alcohol and other drugs, they may have a better opportunity to address other health issues, such as hepatitis C or mental health issues which may have previously been ignored. Some services such as the

(WA) link people to health services before and after their release from prison. For people with complex needs, programs such as CRC’s 

assist people to move from prison back into the community by identifying each person’s needs and creating ongoing support.

Other services such as

provide specialist alcohol and other drugs assessment and treatment for clients in prison as part of their parole, and make sure the person is connected into a wide range of services and supports when they leave prison.

Many people will not have access to transitional programs to prepare them for release into the community. The risk for drug overdose and suicide are high among people who are leaving prison.

Information about leaving prison

When a release from prison is planned, a person will usually be given a summary letter about their general health and will be prescribed medication (if needed). If they need treatment it is important they see a relevant doctor as soon as possible after release.

People are at high risk of harm when they first leave prison

  • The first 72 hours after leaving prison is the danger time for overdose. People often don’t realise how their tolerance has dropped so they can fatally overdose on amounts they previously would have been able to handle.
  • The first two weeks after leaving prison is the critical period for relapsing into alcohol and other drug use. This can quickly lead to reoffending (e.g. theft, arrest for drunken behaviour) and a return to the criminal justice system.
  • The first three months after leaving prison are critical for making the transition back into the community. During this time it is important the ex-prisoner can find safe accommodation as this provides a base from which they can get work, start to deal with their alcohol and other drug issues and reconnect with society. For some ex-prisoners, the transition back to society is even harder than serving time in prison.

People leaving prison can be supported by helping them to:

  • find stable accommodation away from drug-using peers
  • reconnect with families and communities
  • find appropriate health care including mental health care if needed
  • link to financial support and employment.

For more information about programs that assist offenders after release from prison click on the link below:

Offender health – justice programs


Each state or territory has organisations that support offenders.
Some of these are:


Prison Fellowship Australia

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales


Western Australia


South Australia

Northern Territory

For a complete list of helpful organisations for offenders click on the links below:


No Bars (2011) Early action is critical Retrieved 2015 from

Key resources

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