High Stakes

5. Recommendations



“It is unlikely that the supply of drugs into local prisons will ever be cut off completely, especially given the internal concealment of drugs by both prisoners and visitors on reception and social visits, as well as the importance of maintaining open contact visits for all prisoners. However, this realism should not be confused with pessimism; there is much that can be achieved in terms of security and treatment in order to continue to gain ground in the reduction of drug supply and demand in prison.”1


Risk Management not Zero Tolerance

“This is not a marginal problem which if you tidy it up, we can solve, this is intrinsic to prison life.”2

Zero tolerance originates from the idea that if you work to eliminate all crime, however petty, it becomes easier to maintain a crime-free area, however, nowhere could this be a less viable approach than in prisons. Prisons are naturally a hotbed of criminality. Prisons are full of drug users, people with mental health problems, and those with little to do to escape the horror of their situation than turn to drugs. This unrivalled demand creates economic incentives for suppliers too strong to be eradicated by heightened security measures, more or greater sanctions, or any other available supply reduction technique.

A chasm exists between policy as it purports to be and how it is conducted in practice. We need pragmatic problem-solving, not a moralistic approach. The lack of an intelligent approach to drugs in prisons undermines all the other proposed reforms – prisons will not be safe until we recognise drug use in prisons and try to manage it. The crisis in our prisons is not a tragedy because it is insoluble, we have solutions and people who are willing and able to put those solutions into effect, but they are stifled and obfuscated by counter-effective policies. The aim should be to reduce drug-related harm, not drug use per se.

“There is this massive gap between rhetoric and reality. We need to narrow that gap.”3

There is public rhetoric around zero tolerance but in practice it is clear to many working in the Prison Service that this is practically unachievable and undesirable in principle. Ex-governors and officers frequently talk of tolerance towards the smoking of cannabis and other forms of drug use. A pragmatic approach to focus resources on reducing the most harmful forms of drug use and the drug market should be commended, rather than being something confined to the shadows.

Zero tolerance has failed and is not merely impractical, expensive or unfeasible, but also fundamentally misguided and counterproductive. Even the best managed and funded prison would still have prisoners with health problems requiring medication, people with drug addictions and other people who may, as in wider society, want to take a variety of different drugs for a wide array of different reasons.

When we focus on eradicating drug supply it necessitates creating a high-security, restrictive environment that dramatically increases the cost of engagement, and creates an environment that is totally alien to the outside world. It also directly negatively affects building and maintaining the relationships that are crucial to rehabilitation, increases costs, and drives up drug-related debt. As potential sanctions go up so must levels of violence (the market’s only regulation) to ensure compliance. As the main drug supply routes are narrowed, the value of a corrupted official to organised criminals rises.

Drug use always carries risks and potential harms and these risks need to be managed. Seeking to eradicate these risks creates perverse incentives, counter-effective policies and dangerous and unpredictable evolutions of the drug market.

Prisons are not perfectly managed or funded. They house disproportionately high numbers of people in poor health, people with addictions and those with motivations to use drugs. Prohibition cannot work in prisons, but more than that, it is the most dangerous place in which to pursue absolute prohibition. Whilst wrongheaded drug policy created a small but significant market for NPS in broader society, in prisons where we can exercise more control and supply reduction measures are more keenly felt, it created the environment necessary for NPS to become the most widely used drugs, and a vicious industry built on unsustainable debt that further fuels criminality.


Flickr - Michael Theis

Despite public indignation at drug use in prisons, policy makers must resist overly simplistic so-called solutions. The issue must be tackled with long term evidenced-based policies. Proven, effective, pragmatic and simple harm-reduction measures such as needle exchanges are anathema to the zero tolerance approach. The zero tolerance attitude also stifles people from acquiring meaningful data and openly discussing issues.

There is a huge disparity in the levels of training, education and policy, which is to be expected where the best policy is in fact not to follow official policy but to use some common sense. This policy vacuum leads to a patchy approach. Because everybody says they have a zero tolerance approach to drugs, they can’t talk sensibly and openly about potential solutions and develop best practice which can be adopted nation-wide.

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. It is integral we move policy towards integrating harm-reduction and treatment into every aspect of prison management:

“This is not just about accepting the need for substance misuse services in prison, but about fully integrating it into the management of the prison at every level. In our experience this process works best where specialist drug recovery staff have a presence at all key functional meetings, some of which include Drug Strategy meetings, Safer Prisons, Equalities, Health and Safety, Security, Reducing Reoffending and management morning meetings. By integrating substance misuse staff in this way, joint working, communication and information sharing become a smoothly facilitated process. The result is that change happens.”4

"The reason people are using drugs is because they are banged up all day."

Focus on Reducing Demand

“The only way to stop drugs coming into prison is for prisoners not to want them. Bringing that about would be true prison reform.”5

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.

“The reason people are using drugs is because they are banged up all day.”6

There is a clear link between a lack of purposeful activity and the uptake of drug use. In Bedford prison, the scene of riots in early November, purposeful activity levels have declined steeply over the last five years, and with that we have seen 14% of the population develop drug problem in prison, having not had one prior to their incarceration.7 In HMP Hindley which was deemed to have one of the worst regimes seen by HM Inspectorate, “most prisoners often spent less than half an hour out of their cell in a 24-hour period” and 16% of prisoners developed a drug problem while in prison.8 Overall 8% of men in prison in England and Wales report developing a drug problem since they had been in prison.9

As the rhetoric in the Ministry of Justice white paper notes “a transformation away from offender warehouses to disciplined and purposeful centres of reform where all prisoners get a second chance”10 is needed and we need to introduce “a new way of working in prisons to help prisoners spend more time on purposeful activity and less time in their cells.”11 However, the closest to anything more than rhetoric in the report is that “in future years, we intend to measure and publish the time prisoners spend out of their cells, including time spent out of their cells engaging in purposeful activity.” This is a very loose commitment to a fundamental metric. Abandoning wasteful and ineffective testing could provide the funding to move at pace with these important metrics.

The long-held emphasis on supply reduction over demand reduction creates a number of unintended consequences including 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 on uncounted. As all forms of purposeful activity are reduced, as monetary and staff resources are focused on increasingly onerous security practices, the demand for drugs increases and those profiting from the market find innovative new ways to supply the market.

“You can’t solve people’s problems by punishing them and that applies to people’s drug problems.”12

As well as focusing on reducing drug demand through the creation of busy prison routines, it is important to improve incentives for those who voluntarily stop using drugs. The removal of custodial sanctions for possession of drugs may be politically impossible at the moment in the context of the criminal justice approach in wider society. However, in the long term, the weight of evidence points to re-evaluating this. In the short term, it is entirely feasible to switch the prioritisation and focus of resources.

“Banged up 23 hours a day in a large toilet with someone you have never met before – who wouldn’t want a mind-altering substance? Meaningful work, education and training with a purpose all help. So too do positive interactions with staff, and modern-day access to family and friends outside. All these tactics can aid treatment.”13

We need also to provide those people who have a genuine desire to abstain from drugs with a positive incentive to do so. Better standards of living on drug free wings can do this. The problem is that drug free wings need to be well staffed so that staff can spot the drug dealers and the chancers who have ulterior motives. Building relationships with those in treatment is also essential for successful treatment. Without enough staff you can’t create an environment where people want to keep drugs out, you can only do so with sufficiently well-trained staff and resources.

“I think it might be an interesting experiment to see a correlation between NPS activity, time out of cell and purposeful activity… the way people are using these drugs is also part of a social and cultural norm when in prison, and it is part of an activity which is occupying time which can be, in some cases, displaced by more purposeful activity.”14

As well as reducing demand by getting prisoners out of their cells, it is important to provide activities within cells. The MoJ white paper has missed an opportunity to put forward proposals such as fine cell work and internet-enabled study. Provision of computers in cells could be limited to restrict prisoners only to sites relevant to their study and provide meaningful activities to replace drug use.

Demand reduction also needs to continue outside of prison. The three most important factors to prisoners’ perception of their own ability to not reoffend are housing, employment and drugs.15 In the MoJ white paper the section on preparing for life after prison only mentions work, housing and education. We need more effort to ensure people have access to drug treatment and support in the community to help reduce reoffending rates.

Overhaul Monitoring of Drug Use

“Lessons should be learnt from the emergence of NPS at a national and local level to ensure that a dynamic, responsive and well-coordinated whole-system and whole-prison strategy is in place, both to reduce the harm of current use and respond effectively to future needs.”16

An essential part of effective management is appropriate and reliable metrics for measuring success and failure. The Ministry of Justice’s recommendations to monitor prison’s drug policy outcomes via drug testing prisoners on arrival and exit from prison is unlikely to provide reliable or useful data. This should be replaced with a system, the sole function of which is to monitor the drug market and drug-related harms and not to punish those who use drugs. The new metrics must focus on monitoring drug-related harms in prisons and the nature and scale of the drug market.

MDT statistics are not reliable indicators of levels of supply and use of drugs in prisons. Regular anonymous audits of drug use and the drug market could provide valuable information on which to judge the successes and failures of local policies as prison governors gain increased autonomy under the current prison reform plans. Information should be drawn annually from treatment staff, prison officers, current and ex-prisoners. Evidenced-based Home Office research has called for similar surveys since 2005.17

There is an understanding that this data is useful for safety yet it isn’t suggested for drugs. The MoJ white paper sensibly notes that prison safety and order are important and that there therefore needs to be a monitoring process – “We want to use the measure of the rate of assaults on prison staff and the rate of assaults on prisoners. This knowledge will also help us improve the stability and culture of our prisons and provide a safe working environment. To monitor the success of a prison’s strategy for dealing with vulnerable prisoners we will also include the rate of self-harm by prisoners in performance standards… We will supplement this through additional measures of staff and prisoner perceptions of safety measured through a structured survey to better understand the culture and atmosphere in our prisons.”

Understanding drug use and drug markets in prisons is an important aspect of understanding prison safety due to the complex interaction between the two. These proposed surveys must also address drug use because this is a key component in understanding prison culture, atmosphere and safety. It is essential for integrity that these measures are used strictly for evaluation purposes and not as a performance measure. Absolute confidentiality and discretion will be needed to ensure accurate reporting.

“testing has been blamed for incentivising users and suppliers to switch from cannabis to heroin”

In order to move from ideologically and anecdotally driven practice towards evidenced-based policies we need to improve the collation of relevant data. Substantial benefits could be made in shifting the focus from reducing drug use to reducing drug-related harms. A reduction in the level of incidents of violence, drug-related deaths, self-harm, voluntary segregations for protection and hospitalisations are good proxy indicators of the level of success of a prison’s drug policy. Viewing prison drug policy from the perspective of rates of positive drug test results ignores the levels of these harms and even if it were an accurate measure of rates of drug use, which it is not, it is not an accurate measure of successful harm reduction or risk management.

Re-offending rates, levels of purposeful activity, levels of education, measures of the quality of life of prisoners and time out of cells may also provide useful information in assessing demand for drug use within prisons. Further research is needed in this field to understand the relationship between drug demand and use, and these other metrics.

Much has been made by the MoJ of both the shift away from traditional drugs to novel psychoactive substances and of new tests and sniffer dogs which, it is claimed, will be able to detect these NPS. In reality, prisoners are themselves unaware of precisely which drugs they are selling and using. Prisons do not routinely test the chemical composition of what they find and hospitals tend not to carry out full toxicology reports on sick and violent prisoners. Toxicology reports are done on prisoners who die in custody but this only gives a very partial view of which drugs are being used in prisons.

New dogs have been trained and new tests devised to identify certain SCRAs, but at the moment we simply don’t know which drugs are in circulation. As noted previously, there are over 200 known SCRAs in European markets, and SCRAs only make up one type of an incredibly varied market of novel drugs. Despite legislative changes making the supply and distribution of these substances a criminal activity, these drugs are likely to remain attractive to both suppliers and users, as the vast majority of them are not able to be tested for or detected by sniffer dogs. Attempting to develop tests for all of them is not remotely feasible but monitoring which are in circulation is. Monitoring circulation means that if testing continues it can be targeted, as well as providing valuable information for the treatment of people who have ingested dangerous substances, and better information for staff to understand the nature of the drugs with which they are dealing.

Drug testing has been blamed for incentivising users and suppliers to switch from cannabis to heroin and more recently to diverted medications and novel psychoactive substances. Where testing continues to be employed these unintended potential consequences ought to be recognised and reversed. We know that we can’t test for all drugs, so we should test for the most dangerous drugs most likely to cause the most harm in order to ensure that if testing does incentivise people to use and supply certain drugs which aren’t tested for, that those are also the lowest risk drugs.

Overhaul Monitoring of Drug Supply

Current supply-reduction and security measures are not grounded in reliable evidence. New proposed measures focus on drones and visitors when there is insufficient evidence that these are the primary sources of supply. Anecdotal and historic evidence indicates that corrupt staff may be a major source of supply. Evidence gathering is needed on drug seizures to assist in determining the drugs’ providence, as well as a new regional peripatetic task force within the Prison Service to oversee periodic spot checks and searches of staff.

In order to best target limited resources to reduce the supply of drugs into prisons, it is imperative to understand which routes of supply are being favoured by suppliers. At the moment we simply don’t know what prisoners are using or how they are getting drugs into prisons. The data gathered in relation to drug seizures is very minimal. An understanding of the specific drug seized, its weight, and details about where and how it was found would help improve understanding of the market and provide valuable information in attempts to combat the market. Whilst more information is needed in this regard, it is important to caution that drug seizures are not a reliable metric for assessing drug policy success. Due to the nature of different regimes, the number and scale of drug seizures in a prison provides more of an operational measure than a reliable indicator of the scale of drug use in any given prison. However, the more information gathered about seizures, the better intelligence will be with which to combat the supply of drugs.

The current approach in the White Paper to propose measures tackling drug supply without a coherent strategy to combat corruption fails to recognise the balloon effect on supply routes and could have pernicious unintended consequences. A roaming task force focused on investigating potential corruption could provide an affordable alternative to the searching of all staff on entering prisons. Prisons are often highly dynamic environments so searching everybody is not always possible or preferable. There ought, however, to be a national strategy to provide some oversight of staff owing to their potential role in the supply of drugs into our prisons.

“we cannot ensure the safety of inmates and prison staff”

Improve Staff to Prisoner Ratio through reducing the prison population

Ministry of Justice – “Our analysis shows a statistical correlation between the numbers of staff and the level of violent incidents. We now need more frontline staff, and we need to change the way they work to better support offenders and respond to new threats as they arise.”18

The Ministry of Justice white paper on prison reform acknowledges the importance of improving the relationship between officers and staff but makes no mention of plans to reduce prison numbers. Instead it sets out a plan to invest £1.3 billion in new facilities with an additional 10,000 prison places.19 England and Wales already have a per capita prison population of 148 prisoners for every 100,000 people, the highest in Western Europe.

Prison standards have dropped unacceptably. When prisons are understaffed and overcrowded we cannot ensure the safety of inmates and prison staff, which is a prerequisite to achieving rehabilitation. Prisoners must instead go into lockdown, which means that training, education and work cannot be undertaken. We cannot continue to cut funding whilst more people are sent to prison and for longer sentences. To do so will condemn our prisons to become warehouses, as seen in some parts of the USA.20 These warehouses temporarily incapacitate inmates from some forms of crime whilst doing nothing to tackle the root causes of their criminality and feeding the growth of a harmful illicit trade in drugs and organised crime.


Flickr - lepetitrouge

It is clear that there needs to be either an increase in funding or a reduction in prison population to effectively handle the current crisis. Significant savings may be made through sensible policies and efficient management, but there is an immediate threat to the safety and security of our prison estate and more immediate measures are needed to alleviate overcrowding and improve the staff to prisoner ratio.

We also know that sending people to prison increases their chance of reoffending21 so surely the better approach is to reduce prison numbers, however politically unpalatable that is. The alternatives are either to allow the crisis in prisons to escalate, or to substantially increase spending on prisons; both equally unpalatable and also likely to result in higher crime rates.

There are a number of potential criminal justice reforms which cannot go without mention when discussing potential solutions to the problems faced by our Prison Service. Areas, which need immediate focus and public debate, include problem solving courts, liaison and diversion, sentencing reform, alternatives to local prisons for prisoners on remand, and alternatives to custodial sanctions. The Howard League for Penal Reform are currently calling for reductions in prison numbers by sensibly making more use of release on temporary license, changes to recall, and by making it easier to get parole.22

There is also an opportunity to make some gains through sentencing reform of non-violent drug offences. Prisons are often environments which drive the demand for drugs. People receiving residential drug treatment are 43% less likely to reoffend on release than comparable people sent to prison.23 14% of men and women in prison are serving sentences for drug offences.24 With many problems driven by prison overpopulation, alternatives to custodial sanctions for those guilty of non-violent drug offences would be a sensible and pragmatic part of reducing the burden on the prison system.

Understaffing has been particularly relevant to the increased harms associated with drugs in prisons over recent years. Low staffing levels reduce prisons capacity to undertake an intelligence-led approach to security. The MoJ’s commitment to the fact that in order “to improve prison safety we need a fundamental shift in the way in which prison staff support and interact with prisoners”25 is something the government simply cannot afford if it continues to avoid the issue of reducing the prison population, instead aiming to increase the prison estate’s capacity by 10,000.26

In Norway, there has been success in reducing drug-related harms and controlling and restricting the prison drug market in large part due to both their high staff to prisoner ratio and the extensive training in intelligence-led/dynamic security. This policy of officers engaging with prisoners in order to spot those with drug problems, those involved in criminal activities within prison and those vulnerable to either self-harm or exploitation, could not be much further from the current practices in UK prisons. It is this sort of security, not technological advancements that presents the best opportunity to reduce drug-related harms in prisons. One of the most crucial benefits is that it seems to encourage a sharing economy by limiting the opportunity for drug dealers to establish themselves.27 It has the corollary benefit of being likely to assist with both rehabilitation and drug treatment through better relationship forming and support.

The Ministry of Justice has committed to improving the capability of staff. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include any increase in the basic training of officers, or an increase in the base rate of pay. In order to have staff performing a complex, sophisticated, multi-faceted role, pay will need to be increased to attract sufficient talent for the roles. More will also need to be done to retain experienced staff, who for the 12 months ending September 2016, left the profession at a higher rate than new staff were recruited.28

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