Background To systematically review the quantitative and qualitative evidence base pertaining to the prevalence, practice of, and treatment response to the diversion of prescribed opiates in the prison setting. Methods Medline, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Google Scholar, ASSIA and Science Direct databases were searched for papers from 1995 to the present relevant to the abuse of prescribed opiate medication. Identified journals and their reference lists were hand searched for other relevant articles. Of the abstracts identified as relevant, full text papers were retrieved and critiqued against the inclusion criteria for the review. Results Three hundred and fifty-five abstracts were identified, leading to 42 full-text articles being retrieved. Of those, 10 papers were included in the review. Significant differences in abuse behaviours between different countries were reported. However, a key theme emerged from the data regarding a culture of nasal administration of prescribed sublingual buprenorphine within some prisons due to both reduced prevalence of injection within prison and reduced supplies of illicit drugs within prison. The buprenorphine/naloxone preparation appears to be less amenable to abuse. The review highlighted a paucity of empirical research pertaining to both prevalence of the phenomenon and treatment responses. Clinical and research implications Healthcare providers within prisons need to prescribe opioids in the least abuseable preparation since the risk of abuse is significant, despite widespread processes of supervised dispensing. Prescription medication abuse is not limited to opioids and the predominant drug of abuse in an individual prison can rapidly change according to availability.