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The Prison / Rehab Culture Clash

People leaving prison can show certain institutionalised behaviours that are usually related to surviving in a custodial setting. These behaviours can appear to be in direct conflict with the behaviours expected by drug and alcohol workers from clients participating in drug and alcohol programs.

A prison / rehab culture clash can arise when people who have been in prison begin a drug and alcohol residential treatment program. The table below highlights some of the differences in behavioural expectations and cultural norms in the prison system and drug and alcohol treatment settings.




Power & Control

Custodial power is ultimate.Staff have the power to determine if a person has access to, and can remain in a program.
Information is held by staff that can be used for or against the person at any time.Information is collected by staff and informs decision making - processes may not seem transparent to clients.
Information is power and is traded among inmates and officers for control over others.Clients are expected to share information about themselves and their feelings.
Survival requires outward compliance, internal withdrawal and emotional shutdown.Survival requires outward compliance, emotional openness and participation.

Value & Beleifs

Do not pass on information to staff about another person under any circumstances. This is termed 'dogging' and the penalty can be serious injury or death.Peer support is a vital part of the treatment process. Clients help other clients by telling staff if other clients are going to use, or break agency rules in some way. Not doing so may result in sanctions of some kind for the client who has not spoken up.
Do not trust prison staff, they do not care about prisoners.Trust service staff, they care about clients wellbeing. Participate in the program that is designed to help clients.
Keep your head down and do whatever you are told whether you agree or not.Openness and communication are vital components of program compliance and success.

What the culture clash can mean for clients:

  • Difficulty in adjusting to routines, structure and rules.
  • Mistrustful and defensive with workers.
  • Difficulty or inability to participate in group activities.
  • Lack of understanding of the rules or expectations.
  • Fearful that information will be used against them.
  • A perceived lack of commitment to the program, lack of motivation.
  • May be asked to leave at an early stage of treatment because they cannot break their habits.
  • Ostracised by other clients in the service.

How to address culture clash difficulties

When taking into consideration the culture clash between expected behaviour in the prison setting versus the residential treatment setting, the reasons behind these perceived barriers to treatment for people who have been in prison become clearer.

Some of the key issues drug and alcohol workers have identified as barriers to providing services specific to ex-prisoners in their treatment agencies are:

  • Pacing. This is a typical response to being in a confined space and the need for exercise. Often ex-prisoners are unaware they are doing it and are prepared to stop when asked.
  • Withholding emotions. One survival mechanism in prison is to be outwardly compliant, while experiencing internal withdrawal and emotional shut down. People who have been in prison may take longer than other participants to feel comfortable expressing emotions during a program, particularly in group work and similar situations. Understanding why a person appears to be not participating will help support the client and avoid any misinterpretations of this behaviour, such as a perceived lack of motivation in program participation.
  • Withholding personal information. This is also a survival mechanism in prison. In prison others can use a person's personal information against them. Information is power and is traded among inmates and officers for control over others. Divulging information can at times place the prisoner and their family at risk.
  • Withholding information about other clients in the service. In prison culture, you do not pass on information to staff about another person under any circumstances. This is considered the worst betrayal among prisoners. People who are thought to be a 'dog' in prison can be seriously injured or killed. In a rehabilitation setting, peer support is a vital part of treatment. Residents are asked to help other residents by informing staff if someone is going to use drugs, or break agency rules in some way.
  • Being overwhelmed by the program's expectations. People in prison have a lot of time to themselves in their cells where they have to spend the majority of their day. Participating in a treatment / rehabilitation service program and having to be part of group work, rosters and having other responsibilities can initially be overwhelming.
  • Having less family contact. Prisons usually allow frequent phone contact and family visits without an eligibility waiting time. When participating in a rehabilitation program, family contact can be more restricted than prison and this can be distressing.
  • Addressing legal worries. A person may have a court appearance or other legal worries on their mind. Sometimes just making or receiving a phone call from their lawyer can greatly reduce this stress.

Small adjustments in practice when working with this client group can assist drug and alcohol workers to better support their clients and have successful treatment outcomes:

  • Time. Give the client the support and time to make the cultural shift.
  • Acknowledgement. Identify and acknowledge the difference in environments with the person.
  • Emotional Safety. Support the client to feel safe to share in your program.
  • Motivation. Be conscious of how the cultural clash can be interpreted by staff as lack of motivation by the client to participate in the program rather than the process of adjustment to a setting with different expectations and rules.

Training staff and increasing service knowledge on how the criminal justice system works, the reality of prison life, and the impact of incarceration on people, can help drug and alcohol staff to better support criminal justice clients in the rehabilitation setting and have a successful treatment outcome.

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For more information see About Criminal Justice Clients

Read a short version of the above interview with Marcus, an ex criminal justice client who has accessed community residential rehabilitation treatment services. Click here to download

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Most rehab staff - well a lot at least - think people coming from jail to rehab are only there to get out of jail. Evan though that may be the case, it doesn't mean that they're not fair dinkum about completing the program and bettering themselves.

Marcus, ex criminal justice and residential treatment service client.