High Stakes

by Web Test

High Stakes: An Inquiry into the Drugs Crisis in English Prisons

You can download the full report here.


Executive Summary

Prisons are in crisis with record levels of suicides, violence and self-harm. Traditional drugs have been replaced by a family of drugs called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, generically referred to as ‘black mamba’ or ‘spice.’ The government has failed to recognise the important policy implications of these new drugs, and the lack of intelligent drug policy in the new white paper risks undermining the entirety of the proposed prison reforms.

This report is the first of its kind bringing together experts in drug and prison policy to examine the implications of the radical shift in prison drug markets and propose pragmatic solutions to reduce drug-related harms and improve prison safety and security.

The report reviews the rise to near ubiquity of spice in men’s prisons in England. These diverse and multitudinous substances have risen to prominence globally in response to international prohibition of popular illicit substances, in particular cannabis. These new substances have relatively unknown risk profiles and many induce paranoia, behavioural disturbances, violence, seizures and convulsions. They are particularly popular in prisons due to their low cost, difficulty to detect, and “bird [prison sentence] killing” effects.

Too little is being done to fight drug demand within prisons. Prisoners are often left unoccupied in their cells for 23 hours a day. Many prisoners are developing drug problems during their incarceration. Overall 8% of men in prison in England and Wales report developing a drug problem since they have been in prison. In prisons with the worst regimes this is as high as 14-16%. This is increasing drug use and the frequency of dangerous incidents, which are a substantial drain on prison staff resources. This feeds a vicious cycle, further draining resources, and is leaving prisoners increasingly unoccupied and under supervised. As staff capacity is reduced this further decreases the ability of prisons to perform essential functions in disrupting the supply of drugs into prisons leaving criminal organisations able to push drugs with impunity.

The supply reduction methods proposed in the White Paper are expensive distractions from the real work needed to disrupt criminal supply chains. Proposed extensions to the mandatory drug testing regime will be impracticable with the available resources, only identify a limited range of the drugs in circulation, and fail to assist in identifying those supplying drugs. New sniffer dogs will quickly become obsolete due to the rate of chemical innovation of new substances.
We are currently monitoring drug use in prisons through mandatory drug testing and records of seizures. These methods give very little assistance in terms of understanding who is supplying drugs, who is using drugs, what drugs are in circulation, how drugs are getting into prisons, or the level and nature of harm associated with drug use in a given prison.


Risk management not zero tolerance – a chasm exists between the prevailing rhetoric and policy reality. In order to manage prisons effectively efforts need to focus on disrupting supply chains, reducing demand for drugs, and improving intelligence-gathering. Reducing drug-related harms makes prisons safer places in which rehabilitation is more effective. Helping addicted drug-users who are willing to change to turn their lives around is proven to reduce re-offending rates.

Reduce demand through purposeful activity – There needs to be an acceptance that supply reduction measures are there to disrupt supply, they are not there to eradicate it. A shift of emphasis towards demand reduction is required to make prisons more effective places at tackling problem drug habits and rehabilitating offenders. There is a clear link between a lack of purposeful activity and the uptake of drug use. Busy prison regimes and treatment are more effective than security measures in managing the drug problem in our prisons. The long-held emphasis on supply reduction over demand reduction creates an increased burden on staff, logistical and management difficulties, and associated difficulties in implementing new policies, supporting work, training, education and treatment schemes. These costs too often go uncounted.

Overhaul monitoring of drug use – An essential part of effective management is using appropriate, reliable metrics for measuring success and failure. The Ministry of Justice’s recommendations to monitor prisons’ drug policy outcomes via drug testing prisoners on arrival and exit from prison will not provide reliable or useful data. Instead, a system should be implemented to monitor the nature and scale of the drug market and drug-related harms. Regular anonymous audits of drug use and the drug market could provide valuable information from treatment staff, prison officers, current and ex-prisoners.

Overhaul monitoring of drug supply and security – Current supply-reduction and security measures are not grounded in evidence. New proposed measures focus on drones and visitors when there is no evidence that these are the primary sources of supply. There is evidence suggesting corrupt staff may be a major source of supply. Evidence gathering is needed on drug seizures to assist in determining their providence, as well as a new regional task force within the Prison Service to oversee periodic spot checks and searches of staff.

Improve staff to prisoner ratio – Overseeing busy prison routines and effective treatment is a labour-intensive endeavour with no quick-fix technological solutions. In order to bring about this reform we need a better staff to prisoner ratio. To do so means that we need to either substantially reduce the prison population or substantially increase prison funding. Reducing the prison population likely has both fiscal and outcome benefits by reducing the use of a costly and ineffective intervention.

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