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Prisons and drugs — prevalence, responses and alternatives to imprisonment

Over the last decade, Europe has seen a significant increase in the size of its prison population. As of 1 September 2010, there were an estimated 635 000 inmates in prison in EU Member States.

Despite increasing interest in providing ‘alternatives to prison’, many people with drug problems continue to pass through Europe’s prisons every year.

Although some do stop using drugs when incarcerated, others may initiate drug use, or start engaging in more damaging behaviours, like drug injecting. Many prisoners are affected by overcrowding, poor hygiene and a lack of healthcare provision, which contribute to the overall poor health status found in prison populations.

In general, services provided to prisoners should mirror those provided in the community. In recent years, many European countries have increased the provision of services for drug users in prison, particularly opioid substitution treatment. When appropriate drug services are in place, periods of incarceration can help prisoners to engage in treatment and reduce drug-related health- and social problems.

The importance of treating prison health as an inseparable component of public health has increasingly been acknowledged by international and European institutions. The Council Recommendation of 18 June 2003 and the different EU Action Plans on Drugs have called for the development and implementation of prevention, harm reduction and treatment services in prison that are equivalent to services outside prison.

EMCDDA Publications

Estimating public expenditure on drug-law offenders in prison in Europe

publication thumbnail (EMCDDA Papers, 2014) The EMCDDA has estimated annual public expenditure on drug-law offenders in prisons in Europe. Between 2000 and 2010, this expenditure is estimated to have been within the range of 0.03 % to 0.05 % of GDP, on average, in 22 European countries. By applying these percentages to the whole EU for the year 2010, it can be estimated that the expenditure was within the range of EUR 3.7 billion to EUR 5.9 billion. View this publication »

Prisons and drugs in Europe: the problem and responses

publication thumbnail (Selected issue, 2012) This Selected issue starts off by reviewing the available data on drug use among prison populations in Europe, focusing on injecting drug use and other health risk behaviours. Major health risks for drug-using prisoners, including blood-borne infections and infections that can affect all prisoners equally, such as tuberculosis, are discussed. Also mentioned is the role of prison environments, where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are not uncommon, and the higher-than-average occurrence of psychiatric problems among prisoners. View this publication »

Drug offences: sentencing and other outcomes

publication thumbnail (Selected issue, 2009) The sentences that offenders receive for drug law violations across the European Union are examined for the first time in this ‘Selected issue’. By analysing the most recent year’s statistics, this report attempts to answer the question: What is the most likely outcome for an offender after being stopped by police for a drug law offence of use or personal possession, or supply or trafficking? View this publication »

Alternatives to imprisonment — targeting offending problem drug users in the EU

publication thumbnail (Selected issue, 2005) The alternatives to prison that may be offered to drug-using offenders cover a range of sanctions that may delay, avoid, replace or complement prison sentences for those drug users who have committed an offence normally sanctioned with imprisonment by national law. In this Selected issue, the focus is on those measures that have a drug-related treatment component. It will describe the political and legal background, the application and implementation, including common problems, and the effects of treatment as an alternative to imprisonment. View this publication »

Treating drug users in prison – a critical area for health promotion and crime reduction policy

publication thumbnail (Drugs in focus, 2003) Estimates suggest that at least half of the EU's 356 000 prison population has a drug-use history and many of those entering prison have a severe drug problem. Prison does not necessarily stop the use of drugs, neither does it necessarily address the therapeutic needs of problem drug users. Relatively high rates of HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and other infections associated with drug use are also found among the prison population. View this publication »

Drug use in prison

publication thumbnail(Selected issue, 2002) In 2002, the EMCDDA examined the topic "prison and drug use" for the first time in a Selected Issue, documenting that the presence of drugs and drug use had fundamentally changed the prison reality since the 1980s. At the turn of the century, all countries in Europe experienced major problems due to drugs and drug-related infectious diseases in prisons. View this publication »


Statistics – Prevalence

The 'drug users in prison' data set in the Statistical bulletin reports on various studies of prison inmates in different EU Member States and Norway over the past decade. Results shown in the studies cover a range of drugs including opiates, cocaine, cannabis and polydrug use, and prevalence is estimated for a range of inmate sub-populations: injectors, males, females, youth. Access drug users in prison (DUP), Statistical bulletin »

Statistics – Health and social responses

Data on the level of provision of selected health responses to prisoners as well as data on opioid substitution treatment in prison in Europe can be consulted here. »


About the EMCDDA

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU's decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Thursday, 18 June 2015