Drugs and alcohol are behind most New Zealand crime - but about 95 per cent of the prisoners with drug and alcohol problems will get no help with their addictions this year.

The Corrections Department says 89 per cent of serious offenders were affected by drugs and/or alcohol in the period leading to their offences.

Another survey found that 83 per cent of all prisoners had abused or been dependent on alcohol or other drugs in their lives - 75 per cent on alcohol, 53 per cent on cannabis and 39 per cent on other substances. Most had multiple addictions.

Yet the department says prisoners get help for their addictions only if:

* They are jailed for long enough to attend a treatment programme. In practice this excludes most prisoners sentenced to less than two years in jail.

* They are likely to commit crimes again when they are freed.

* Their addictions contribute directly to their likelihood of reoffending.

* They have passed two consecutive urine tests showing they are not using drugs or alcohol in prison.

* They are motivated to go straight.

As well, they normally get help only about two-thirds of the way through their sentences, because the idea is to keep them off addictive substances when they leave jail.

These criteria rule out almost everyone. This year Corrections will put only 140 people through a 10-week, 100-hour drug and alcohol education course and only 174 into more intensive six-month courses at Waikeria and Arohata. That is 314 people, or 5 per cent of the 83 per cent of inmates with drug or alcohol problems.

"There are not enough programmes for them. That's a big part of the reason why our people are reoffending," says a Cook Islands Maori social worker who works with released prisoners.

Although alcohol has been a problem since the first European sealers and whalers arrived here, other drugs are surprisingly new.

As recently as 1974, when the Rev David Connor started as a chaplain at Waikune near National Park, drugs were "not a problem".

Even in 1984, when he moved to Paremoremo, there was only one chain-link fence around the medium-security block.

"Now that fence has razor wire on top, and there is a steel fence beyond it and then there is a trip-wire barrier that sets off an alarm, and outside that there is another razor-wire fence."

Prisoners are now strip-searched after seeing visitors and urine-tested regularly.

Drug-dogs search cells and mailrooms. All prisoners' phone calls are tapped.

At one prison, even the number of Christian volunteers has been cut by three-quarters to minimise drug smuggling. Yet drugs still get in.

"There's heaps of weed, even methamphetamine. Drugs are part of your life. It's been like that since I've been going to jail. They will never stamp it out," says one ex-prisoner who has been jailed 16 times in the past 21 years.

Counsellors say drugs will stay a problem inside as long as they are widely used outside. A former drug dealer whose partner is still in jail says drugs are a big slice of our economy.

"We had a few million dollars. We were using it to stay in luxury hotels, motels, villas. Go and look at the penthouse suites and half of them will be full of methamphetamine users."

He's off drugs now but says: "It's hard work staying off it because you want it every day. It's part of your life, it's going to be part of your life for the rest of your life. I love taking them. Drugs are my friend. But drugs don't give you love."

Auckland counsellor David Chaloner says 85 per cent to 90 per cent of people can drink in moderation and stop when they've had enough. But the other 10 to 15 per cent get hooked.

Reducing drug use in society requires helping people to find a balance between individualism and responsibilities to family, jobs and those in need.

In jails, it means helping prisoners to become responsible by fostering rather than restricting links with family and others, expanding work in prisons and community service outside, and enabling prisoners to organise their own activities as they do in the Maori focus units.

"The Maori focus units are great," says the Cook Islands social worker. "They involve all the whanau and have that concept of finding out who they are.

"I witness the lightness in their faces, like a spiritual event in their joy of discovering themselves."

Abandoned and left to his addictions

It has taken 10 jail terms to get Chris his first chance to lead a normal life.

Chris (not his real name) is 22 and has been jailed nine times since he was 16. The longest time he lasted outside was two months.

Through all that time, Chris says, he was never given any alcohol or drug education or treatment in prison, and has never attended any addiction counselling as a condition of his release.

Finally, before sentencing him just before Christmas for his 10th term inside for burglary, a judge noticed that he had a problem and ordered a drug and alcohol assessment.

In this he scored 28 out of 40 on an alcohol dependence test and 13 out of 20 for drug problems and the judge sentenced him to two years in jail with leave to apply for home detention at Odyssey House in Auckland.

Roger Brooking, a Wellington counsellor who did Chris' alcohol and drug assessment, says it's tragic that he had to wait so long.

"Both his parents were alcoholic," he says. "At five, he was taken off them and went to live with his aunt and uncle. There were 15 people living with his aunt and uncle.

"He began sniffing petrol and smoking cannabis at the age of 12 and says he got regular hidings from his aunt and uncle and started running away from them. He started drinking and began offending.

"Eventually he was taken into Child, Youth and Family Services' care and was placed in a series of foster homes.

"From then on, no one in his family has wanted to have anything to do with him. His mother drinks. He has only seen his father three times in the last nine years. He hasn't seen his brothers and sister in six years.

"He has only occasional phone contact with his aunt and uncle and appears to have no support outside prison whatsoever."

He attended three secondary schools but spent no more than two months at any of them. He has had three brief jobs, the longest for a month.

Every time he is released, Chris lives on the streets and steals alcohol, or the money to buy it.

"He has never had a relationship which has lasted more than two weeks, because of his drinking, his lack of social skills and the amount of time he has spent in prison," Mr Brooking says.

Given Chris' alcoholic parents, he has always been genetically vulnerable to substance abuse. But treatment is possible.

"Just because there is a genetic vulnerability doesn't mean he can't get on top of it."

Bungle threatens addict's recovery

A lawyer who was double-booked in court may have cost Matt his chance of getting his drug addiction treated.

Matt (not his real name) had his case referred to the High Court recently when his legal aid lawyer failed to appear at a District Court hearing because he was busy in another court.

Eight months ago, the lawyer said that if the case went to the High Court, the chances of getting Matt bail to attend an addiction centre would be negligible.

He pleaded guilty to his drug-related offence and a friend who contacted the Herald said Matt was keen to finally "get clean".

"I think he was born an addict. It's in the genes," the friend said. "His father is an alcoholic, but he left when Matt was six weeks old. He has never met him.

"He has a history of alcohol abuse, marijuana, and then P."

Matt, 38, had held down jobs and had a 3-year-old son, but was estranged from the boy's mother.

He got a first chance to change six years ago when he was arrested on another charge and allowed to go to a residential treatment course.

His friend went to his graduation. "It was great to see the change in his attitude and behaviour," she says.

But when the case came back to court for sentencing after he had completed the course, it was to a different judge, who sentenced him to two years in jail in a distant city.

"None of the skills he had learned on the course were able to be used," his friend said.

"You are in prison. You can't call your sponsor. You can't go to meetings.

"He had this attitude of, 'why did I bother?'."

When he came out, he started using drugs again and soon hooked up with friends from jail. "He was away again. There had just been too much hurt."

His arrest again last July gave him a second chance. The lawyer said he would try to get Matt bail to attend a course, and the friend found him a bed at Odyssey House.

But the lawyer was called away on the day and had not arranged another hearing date. The judge referred the case to the High Court. Odyssey House told the lawyer it had had to give the bed to someone else, and he should defer an application to the High Court for bail until another bed came up.

That may happen in the next fortnight. Matt's life might yet be saved. But his friend is worried.

"He got badly let down," she said. "With drug addicts, there is only a small window of opportunity. He has just pretty much thrown his hands up in horror."