Every year, more than 80,000 people end prison sentences in the UK. Most have a complex mix of mental health problems alongside drug or alcohol addictions and a myriad of other difficulties to face.

Many have no home to go to. The majority have no job, and some have no family to take them back.

For these people, the days and weeks after leaving prison are times of intense vulnerability. Recently released prisoners have a vastly inflated risk of suicide: eight times the rate for the general population. More than two-thirds of released prisoners go on to be imprisoned again for further offences. It is thus crucial that public services, the NHS among them, work assertively to resettle former prisoners, not to leave them to take their chances in what for many can be a chaotic and abusive world.

Overcoming difficulties

Organising support for released prisoners can, of course, be a tough task. A Sainsbury Centre report due to be published next week (On the Outside) will show just how easy it is for released prisoners to lose touch with services and just how complex their needs can be. Many prisoners do not know where they will be living on release. Some end up on relatives' sofas. Others go to hostels where they fear getting back into drug habits, or they end up on the streets.

Simply being in prison, even for short periods, can cause such disruption to a person's life that the sources of stability that did exist in their lives evaporate. Relationships can collapse quickly when people are in prison and, for many women, the fear of losing their children is all too real.

The importance of resettlement from prison is widely recognised. Probation services, charities, health services and local authorities all offer considerable support to people leaving prison. Yet it is evident that yawning gaps exist, that efforts are poorly co-ordinated, and that prisoners with the most pressing problems often feel unsupported when their needs are greatest.

Health's role

Community mental health services too often abrogate responsibility for service users when they go into prison, leaving prison health services without valuable information. Prisoners whose mental health problems are not severe enough to qualify for specialist services, yet whose support needs are many and complex, face even bigger barriers to getting help when they are released.

There is a lot the NHS can do to put this right. Primary care trusts should ensure prison mental health services receive sufficient funds, and that all prisoners are registered with a GP where they are going to live on release. Mental health services should maintain contact with people who use their services when they go into prison and use the care programme approach to ensure the prisoner's priorities are central to the support they get when they are released.

Health services alone cannot ensure better lives for released prisoners. Many other agencies, not least housing and social care, have key roles. But if the NHS is not actively involved, the chances of successful resettlement are dramatically reduced and that can be a disaster for everyone.