UK Prisons Are Decaying On A Diet Of ‘Legal Highs’

by Calum Armstrong



It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones

― Nelson Mandela

It is no secret that conditions in UK prisons are in desperate, urgent need of improvement. Overcrowded and understaffed, prisons are playing host to experimental, largely untested New Psychoactive Substances.

Also known as ‘legal highs’, these drugs are starting to cause major problems in all areas of prison life – where a vulnerable population experiencing a dramatic increase in self-harm and suicide are turning to NPS out of sheer desperation.

Fortunately, it appears that our Government are starting to take notice, and one can sense that new plans for prison reform are on the horizon.

To get the definitive account of drugs behind bars, VolteFace spoke to Alex Cavendish, who runs and writes Prison UK: An Insider’s Viewthe leading opinion and news resource for UK prisons.

With his own experience as an inmate and prison insider (an inmate who assists prison staff) to draw upon, Cavendish, answering over email, shared his insight into what is fast becoming a crisis for the UK penal system.

HMP Armley, Leeds - the most overcrowded prison in the UK, according to (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

HMP Armley, Leeds – the most overcrowded prison in the UK, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

How are UK drug laws related to the quality of life in UK prisons, and how would relaxing laws on certain prohibited substances change life for prisoners?

Well, I’ve certainly met plenty of people in prison who are there because of their involvement with drugs. Many are inside for drug-related offences, such as persistent low-level theft or burglary, crimes which are often motivated by a need to feed their habits, but I’ve also met a fair number of very intelligent professionals who have fallen foul of conspiracy to supply laws. These include entrepreneurs, teachers, estate agents, accountants, lawyers and even police officers. Sometimes we forget that many of the skills required to run a successful drugs supply operation are also those that are essential for managing a legitimate business.

I also know some very talented musicians who have got involved with drugs through the music scene and have ended up in jail serving quite long sentences, mainly as a consequence of becoming part of the supply chain. It’s a terrible waste of talent.

(Source: Flickr - houstondwiPhotos mp)

(Source: Flickr – houstondwiPhotos mp)

Prison can be a particularly difficult experience for people who have serious drug dependencies. Those who are already using heroin usually go onto the methadone programme under the supervision of the healthcare department, but there isn’t really much else beyond counselling and, occasionally, alternative therapies such as acupuncture or art sessions. Of course, prison is also a lousy place to try to kick a habit since pretty much every establishment is currently awash with most types of drugs, both legal and illegal.

My own view is that relaxing our existing drug laws – effectively decriminalising personal possession and use – would have an enormous impact on the prison population. It currently costs the taxpayer a whopping £36,000 a year to keep someone inside. If a fraction of that could be spent on helping people who have drug dependencies manage their addiction in the community, it would make so much more economic sense.

To what do you attribute the rapidly increasing use of ‘legal highs’ (also known as ‘new psychoactive substances’) in prison? Press coverage presents an alarming state of affairs – how close, in your estimation, is the ‘average’ prisoner to one of these substances at any given time, and how easy is it to get ‘sucked in’, so to speak?

To be honest, the media doesn’t know the half of it. It’s often easier to get drugs in prison than it is out on the street. I’ve never used drugs in my life, but I was offered more opportunities to sample substances while I was inside than – say – in Soho on a Saturday night.

The main reason for this is simple: supply and demand. Prison is a deadly boring environment. You have a small portable TV in your cell – for which you pay between 50p and £1 a week – and for many inmates that’s the only source of entertainment. Around half have serious literacy problems, so they can’t even pass the time reading, so anything that makes the time pass more quickly can be attractive.

Legal highs or NPS (New Psychoactive Substances) – as they are now called officially – started flooding into our prisons back in 2012. Part of the attraction is that they are relatively cheap and, as least at the moment, legal to produce and sell. There was even a recent court case in which a woman who tried to smuggle some into a prisoner had to be acquitted on the grounds that she hadn’t even committed a criminal offence.

The demand is definitely there, so that is being supplied by ‘entrepreneurs’, including quite a significant minority of prison staff. I’m not talking just about uniformed officers, but civilian workers and authorised contractors who have regular access to prisons. The profit margins can be substantial, so people are making good money out of this business. The problem is, however, that we are seeing a massive rise in debt and violence on the wings because so many people are using and no one can fund a habit on an average prison wage of £10 a week.

'Spice' - one of the most commonly used 'legal highs' (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

‘Spice’ – one of the most commonly used ‘legal highs’ (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You have been critical of Mandatory Drug Tests in the past, and have claimed that they have even ‘encouraged the use of harder drugs by default.

When Mandatory Drug Tests were introduced in British prisons back in 1996 the targets were opiates and cannabinoids. Cannabis – which was most prisoners’ drug of choice – has the disadvantage that use can be detected for up to 28 days, whereas harder drugs, such as heroin, will only produce a positive result for a couple of days. Ironically, this means that those inmates who use opiates are statistically less likely to be caught and punished than those who smoke a bit of puff on the wing to relax.

Since the consequences of failing an MDT can be severe, including loss of parole chances and other privileges, the testing regime has played a role in pushing prisoners towards harder drugs, rather than cannabinoids. One of the reasons that we have witnessed a massive upsurge in the use of NPS is that, at present, no prison is testing for these substances at all, although this is set to change soon.

How are UK prisons supporting prisoners addicted to ‘legal highs’ such as ‘Spice‘? What rehabilitative options are there on offer?

Frankly, there seems to be little help on offer because of the difficulties in identifying users. Those prisoners who have heroin habits can be supported through the existing methadone programme, but there now so many users of NPS that current support services are in danger of being overwhelmed. Also, many users don’t want to quit, so why would they turn themselves in to the service providers working inside prisons?

A HIV positive prisoner in Cipinang Narcotics Prison, Jakarta (Source: Flickr - HIV in Indonesia)

A HIV positive prisoner in Cipinang Narcotics Prison, Jakarta (Source: Flickr – HIV in Indonesia)

You have suggested that ‘legal highs’ have become a key component in a vicious spiral that many prisoners find it very difficult to escape:

Prisoners who earn £9.00 a week cannot afford to have a (legal high) habit, particularly if they also smoke tobacco, so a vicious spiral of debt ensues

What combination of factors cause this to happen, and how can the situation be better managed by policymakers and staff?

Debt is a major driver of violence and bullying in the prison system. It is easy for many prisoners to get deeper and deeper into debt. Then, when they can’t repay what they owe, with the interest – which can be double or even triple the original sum – they get backed into a corner. Either they beg family or friends to settle their obligations or, if they can’t, they are liable to get seriously hurt.

Vulnerable Prisoner Units (VPU) aren’t just populated by sex offenders and suspected informers (‘grasses’) but also by debtors on the run from general population. Even transferring to another prison doesn’t always help them, because the drug barons have networks across the prison system and use illicit mobile phones to communicate with their associates. Eventually, a debtor can find he has nowhere to hide.

Some younger prisoners who get in debt can end up as the ‘slaves’ of the guy to whom they owe money. Sometimes they can be forced to act as ‘joeys’ (inmates who do all the dirty jobs) or even as drug couriers, concealing the dealer’s stash in their anuses all the time. It’s probably the ultimate in degradation as they can be summoned to produce the gear on demand, or even kidnapped by a rival gang and ‘spooned out’ by force. I’ll leave the gory details to the imagination.

Source: Flickr - Joshua Davis Photography

Source: Flickr – Joshua Davis Photography

At present our prisons are in crisis. They are overcrowded and understaffed, so wing officers just can’t keep up with everything that is going on. Intelligence gathering has suffered, so identifying drug barons, joeys and those getting into debt is much more difficult. Most prisoners who get into trouble are reluctant to seek help from the authorities, because they risk being branded as ‘grasses’ – and that can be a death sentence, particularly if they are serving a long stretch.

Some prison governors have tried issuing ‘drugs amnesties’ in which prisoners can hand in any illicit drugs and then get referred to rehab providers inside. In reality, this seems to be having little impact, especially when users have no fear of failing an MDT or getting charged for NPS use.

I’ve said many times that if the Prison Service is serious about cracking down on the availability of NPS – and other substances, such as steroids – then it needs to focus on corrupt staff who are involved in trafficking as this is a major supply route. There is simply no way that the sheer quantities involved are coming in solely through small drugs wraps passed over by visitors in the visits hall or thrown over perimeter walls. People are making big profits out of the NPS trade and some of them are members of the prison staff.

Legal Highs can be volatile and poisonous to users, but it appears that prisoners are for the most part so dissatisfied with prison conditions that these substances become an appealing option:

Drugs are popular in prisons because they help some inmates cope with the daily boredom and depression of life behind bars. One long-termer used to call it getting his head ‘out of the window’

How far do you agree with this? Where else in the world could the UK be looking to as a more progressive penal model?

Many prisoners are risk-takers. This is often why they are in jail in the first place. It can be a symptom of a more general immaturity or a chaotic lifestyle outside. There is a demand for ‘immediate gratification’ and this fuels a very short-term outlook.

Lots of inmates really don’t think much about their own futures or their health, so in this environment they are willing to take unknown substances – which could cause serious harm or even death – just to break up the grinding monotony of everyday life behind bars. It’s a form of temporary ‘escape’.

Inmates returning to Fremantle Prison (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Inmates returning to Fremantle Prison (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the same way that around 80 percent of adult prisoners smoke tobacco despite knowing the health risks, so an estimated 60 percent – according to some experts – are now experimenting with NPS. There have even been reports from a few prisons that vulnerable or weaker prisoners are being forced to act as guinea pigs – testing new batches of highs when they arrive so the barons who control the trade can see the effects for themselves.

I’ve never been in prison elsewhere in the world, but I have been told by fellow inmates that cannabis is actually sold legally to prisoners in the Netherlands via the official jail canteen. How true this is I don’t know, but I’ve heard it from several sources. I can see the advantages of such a system, especially when personal use of cannabis has been decriminalised in wider society.

Of course, no drug use is without some degree of risk. Any substances that fuel or heighten paranoia can make prisons even more dangerous places, since a significant proportion of inmates also have mental health needs.

My own view is that there are less risky ways of reducing harms in prison, including tackling boredom by focusing on positive rehabilitation and education. However, until we stop using our prisons as costly human warehousing and start investing in addressing the factors that underlie criminal behaviour – poor education, homelessness, mental health problems, abusive childhoods, personality disorders – illicit drug use will continue in our prisons because it provides many inmates with temporary relief from the grim, depressing environment in which they are confined.

Alex Cavendish is the founder and primary contributor to Prison UK: An Insider’s View

Read our Editor-in-Chief on the need for a new conversation about drug reform

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