Detoxing heroin-addicted prisoners not an 'appropriate' treatment, says doctor

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

An inquest was told by a leading doctor in addiction services yesterday that prisoners who are put on forced detox are at greater risk of relapse, overdose and death.

Dr Cathal O’Sullivan, Health Service Executive East Coast GP co-ordinator for addiction services, told Dublin Coroner’s Court that detoxing heroin-addicted prisoners was not an “appropriate” form of treatment.

The majority will relapse when released and a “huge proportion” of those will die, he said.

“They lose their tolerance for opiates. Then they go out on the streets and take the same amount of opiates or methadone that they had been taking and they die because their body cannot handle it,” he said.

Dr O’Sullivan was giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Alan Hempenstall, a 37-year-old homeless man who overdosed on methadone while on temporary release from Wheatfield Prison.

He was found by a tourist in a laneway behind O’Connell Street on March 28th, 2011, with two bottles of methadone prescribed for another man in his vicinity.

The jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure. They recommended that the prison service examine the issues surrounding detox raised by Dr O’Sullivan.

Earlier Dr O’Sullivan told the court that prison doctors are unable to place prisoners on a methadone maintenance programme unless they are able to ensure its continuation once they are released.

Structured release

The jury also endorsed more than 20 recommendations submitted by the Irish Human Rights Commission, acting on behalf of Mr Hempenstall’s sister Donna O’Connor.

The recommendations included that the Irish Prison Service establish a means to identify “vulnerable” prisoners and put a structured release programme in place prior to discharge; a regular review of such prisoners, particularly in advance of temporary or full release to include input from relevant operational and healthcare staff; and all prisoners scheduled for temporary release should be informed of their entitlement to refuse.

Addressing the court following the verdict, the sister of the deceased, Mrs O’Connor, said she hoped something good could come of the inquest.

“Nothing can be done to help Alan but maybe someone else might benefit,” she said.