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Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2012;7:3. doi: 10.1186/1940-0640-7-3. Epub 2012 Mar 15.

Return to drug use and overdose after release from prison: a qualitative study of risk and protective factors.

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Division of General Internal Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Mail Stop B180, 12631 East 17th Avenue, Aurora, CO 80045, USA.



Former inmates are at high risk for death from drug overdose, especially in the immediate post-release period. The purpose of the study is to understand the drug use experiences, perceptions of overdose risk, and experiences with overdose among former prisoners.


This qualitative study included former prison inmates (N=29) who were recruited within two months after their release. Interviewers conducted in-person, semi-structured interviews which explored participants' experiences and perceptions. Transcripts were analyzed utilizing a team-based method of inductive analysis.


The following themes emerged: 1) Relapse to drugs and alcohol occurred in a context of poor social support, medical co-morbidity and inadequate economic resources; 2) former inmates experienced ubiquitous exposure to drugs in their living environments; 3) intentional overdose was considered "a way out" given situational stressors, and accidental overdose was perceived as related to decreased tolerance; and 4) protective factors included structured drug treatment programs, spirituality/religion, community-based resources (including self-help groups), and family.


Former inmates return to environments that strongly trigger relapse to drug use and put them at risk for overdose. Interventions to prevent overdose after release from prison may benefit from including structured treatment with gradual transition to the community, enhanced protective factors, and reductions of environmental triggers to use drugs.


Drug use; Overdose; Prison re-entry; Prisoners; Relapse

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