High Stakes

4. The Response to Drug Use



“We are not dealing with the problem, it is getting worse and our strategy has failed.”1

The current strategy is about curtailing supply and reducing demand. Supply is dealt with principally through a combination of the criminal justice system and security measures. The demand is addressed by trying to get people not to take drugs through education, awareness, and treatment. The success or failure of these methods is primarily monitored by drug testing and records of drug-seizures. The theory seems rational, and is commonly supported, but the outcome in practice is very bad.

“There are two major failings with policymakers – ‘lack of imagination and failure of empathy’”2

The MoJ response to NPS was initially paralysis, partly because MDT, the metric designed to monitor drug problems in prison, couldn’t identify these new drugs. It was also clear that traditional supply reduction and punitive approaches were increasingly ineffective. Despite this, early announcements included redirecting testing regimes to NPS, revision of adjudication awards (more punishments), technological innovation in security paraphernalia, new search routines and new sniffer dogs. 3

Then, in November, the MoJ released a white paper on prison reform in which they call for a need to “fundamentally reassess our approach to drug demand and supply.”4 It is stated that “while good progress has been made against the availability and harm done by ‘traditional drugs (including cannabis and opiates), as evidenced by steadily falling positive test results under mandatory drug testing since the mid-1990s, we have seen growth in the misuse of new, stronger and more harmful psychoactive substances over the past few years.”5

In other words, the ‘progress’ cited was not progress at all. As no serious, concerted, or systemic effort was made to reduce drug demand in prisons, all the efforts at supply disruption merely helped shift the market towards novel substances and the unpredictable and increased harms entailed in that transition.

The call to fundamentally reassess our approach to drug demand and supply is very welcome but there is as yet no sign that this is what is happening. The MoJ white paper contains no new approach, just the extension of the failed policy of MDT, the introduction of more expensive technology, and training sniffer dogs to detect a few of these novel substances.

The MoJ white paper fails to provide a comprehensive drug strategy despite noting that: “In his July 2016 annual report, Peter Clarke [HM Chief Inspector of Prisons] notes that ‘… the simple fact remains that there is, as yet, no overall national strategy for dealing with the problem’. We share his concern and recognise the need for a more strategic approach.”6 But instead of offering this strategic approach it states that:

“To improve our response in the short term we will strengthen key existing measures to:

  • Enhance our drug testing regime, supporting governors to enable drug testing on entry to and exit from prison as part of a more extensive testing programme, increasing the frequency and range of drugs tested for. This will better inform substance misuse treatment needs, making drug treatment more effective. It will reduce the health harms to prisoners and ensure better continuity of treatment on release into the community. It will also inform assessments of prisons’ performance;
  • introduce legislation to simplify which psychoactive substances are covered by the existing testing process, allowing new tests to be introduced more swiftly as soon as we become aware of new psychoactive substances on the market. Legislative change will also add psychoactive substances to the list of items that are a criminal offence to smuggle into prison, which could mean a prison sentence of up to 10 years for those found guilty;
  • ensure that the perimeters of prisons are secure and maintained in a state that can help deter items from being thrown into the prison;
  • improve our searching capability with dedicated search teams that can be deployed to target specific problem areas including staff searching at unpredictable times;
  • reduce the opportunity and attractiveness for visitors to smuggle drugs to prisoners; and
  • continue to pursue and evaluate technology that can detect drugs including body scanners and drug trace detectors.”

These short term measures are not strategically coherent but we are assured that the government will “set out our full approach to addressing the problem of drugs in prisons over the coming months.” This will sit within the overarching approach in the new cross-Government Drug Strategy, due to be published by the Home Office in the coming months.7


Supply Reduction

The general public assumption is that we can stop the supply of drugs into prisons with a sufficiently concerted effort. In response to this public perception, the default policy from governments from both ends of the political spectrum has been to present a “tougher response.”8 This prevailing narrative assumes that we are not only capable of eliminating the supply of drugs but also that this would be preferable.

In reality, we can’t eliminate the flow of drugs, only disrupt it, and even if all contraband were stopped there would still be a harmful illicit market for diverted medication. There is some benefit to reducing supply to reduce availability, but in order to ensure the costs associated with those policies are not greater than the benefits these costs need to be better understood and an emphasis on disruption over elimination of supply is crucial to that.

The long-standing emphasis on enhancing security measures to combat the drug trade in prisons has demonstrably failed. Drug use and drug-related harms are, by the most-reliable measures, at all-time highs. The supply of drugs into prisons is as unstoppable as the global supply of drugs. Both have grown despite concerted supply reduction efforts.

Mike Trace, CEO, RAPt – “You’ll catch more with better scanners but the impact will be temporary and negligible, it won’t affect the fundamentals of supply and demand.”9

Heightened conventional security measures are the primary response to the supply of drugs into prison. The way in which local enforcement is conducted makes a significant impact on decisions as to how, rather than whether, drugs get into prisons.10 As a result, the main effect of increased security is merely to change the routes used, as one route is disrupted or closed this increases pressure on other routes, known as the ‘balloon effect’.11

“We have long witnessed ‘the balloon effect’ that, for example, saw the ‘crackdown’ on cocaine production in Bolivia more than compensated for by a rise in Colombian production, or similarly how the ‘crackdown’ on Iranian smuggling routes for Afghan opium has pushed trafficking to new routes through the former Soviet republics to the North.” 12


The knock-on effect of these security measures include markets switching to supplying more harmful drugs, increases in outbreaks of disorder, increasing prices, escalating debt, violence and intimidation, and upsets in the status quo, leading to violence between inmates and staff.13 Back in 2010, many of the possible consequences of increased security were well known, but very few foresaw how these consequences would interact with a rapid increase in chemical innovation. The result of this has been hundreds of novel psychoactive substances being brought to market.

In the context of limited resources, it is important to ensure security measures are both effective and cost-effective. All security measures are limited by two main factors; limited resources and unintended costs, for example that certain increases in security impose limits on prisoner activity and interactions with family, treatment, education and training. We have no good data suggesting increased security spending reduces drug-related harms, but good evidence on the harms caused by attempts at supply reduction. More efforts need to be made to count the costs of these security measures and ensure they are cost-effective.

Supply reduction methods can be very corrosive, affecting every aspect of prison life for visitors, staff and inmates. They affect how and when people can move around prison, limiting opportunities for education and training, and place a huge time and resource burden on staff. Changes to the physical environment such as grating over windows to counter drones can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, only for people to damage grills in order to circumvent the security, the repairs of which puts pressure on maintenance teams and drains resources needed for essential facilities, and to run the prison as a functioning rehabilitative environment.

It is clear that some drugs do get into prisons through visits. That said there are human rights, logistical and resource barriers to eradicating this flow, and simple steps already taken are sufficient for keeping the passage of drugs at a trickle and not a flow. Arranging employment and accommodation for released prisoners has repeatedly been shown to be key in reducing inmates reoffending and there is an inherent conflict between the need for control and the rehabilitative philosophy of maintaining family links.14 “The prison officer has perhaps one of the most complex and demanding jobs in society. He or she has to balance the control and help function towards the inmates.15“Research has shown that prisoners who received visits from their family were twice as likely to gain employment on release and three times as likely to have accommodation arranged as those who did not receive any visits.16 Overly intrusive security measures can be inhibitive to family visits. This inherent conflict can often be ignored in the heat of public clamour for increases in security and supply reduction methods.

The rhetoric in the MoJ white paper is about increasing security measures. Meanwhile there is a retained commitment to making efficiencies due to reduced funding. Security measures are often expensive procedures that require skilled staff expending a lot of time and money. But as experienced staff leave, and prisons are operated at increasingly low staffing levels, it becomes much more difficult to conduct cell searches, perimeter searches, and other security measures, leaving many prisons in no position to administer the proposed expansion of drug testing.

In the absence of extra funding, improvements to security are intended to be made through technological advancements in security tools. This is exemplified by the MoJ white paper which proposes solutions to drug problems which are almost universally technical in nature, including; the piloting of new body scanners, ratcheting up of MDT, testing for “specified psychoactive substances”17 with MDT, drug trace detectors, etc. There is no information provided on the costs of these measures, let alone the perceived cost-benefit. As well as taking up precious resources, the continued reliance on new detection technologies and sniffer dogs is likely to exacerbate the market shift towards the supply of drugs that can’t be detected by sniffer dogs. This will incentivise the supply to prisons of new chemicals with unknown dosage, risk-profiles and treatment options.

Many of the proposed improvements in security seem to be an attempt to appease public perception rather than pragmatic pieces of policy. There is a public perception that the use of drones is a major cause of the increase in supply of contraband into prisons, although there is no data to back this up and the public perception does not align with the anecdotal evidence from those closely involved with the Prison Service. Even the MoJ itself, who are keen to appear to be taking strong measures to tackle drones, say that: “The use of drones as a means of smuggling items into prisons is relatively infrequent compared to throw overs or attempts by those entering prisons to hide items about their person. But the potential for drones to cause harm both to prisoners and staff is very real, and we are making sure we are working proactively to meet this threat.”18

Behind the rhetoric of increased security is “tough” legislation. Sentences of up to 10 years can be handed down to those who are caught bringing prohibited drugs into prisons. These high sentences are intended to deter the supply of drugs into prison, and to incapacitate and punish those who aren’t deterred. Unfortunately, these lengthy sentences have done little, if anything, to stifle the market for drugs.

Flickr - Michael Coghlan

John Shaw, Managing Director, Public Services, G4S – “Although [the Psychoactive Substances Act] is very welcome, I don’t think it’s going to make a jot of difference to us for the foreseeable future.”19

Punitive legislation remains as central to the government’s prison drug policy as it was before the NPS crisis. More posturing on strength and toughness has ensued without consideration of how it will affect the situation. These changes have been pushed through, despite the fact that spice has always been illicit contraband in prison:

“We have changed the law to strengthen our approach. We have made the possession of any psychoactive substance in any custodial institution a criminal offence under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.”20

This approach is predicated on a flawed belief that we can legislate a trade with a huge demand out of existence. In reality, “the motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”21 Nevertheless, the MoJ goes on to commit to the aim of “eradicating illicit drug use in prisons.”22

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (PSA), which banned the production and supply of all non-exempted psychoactive substances, was a major breakthrough in the sense that it did not make possession a crime for most people. It is the first piece of UK drug legislation since the Misuse of Drugs Act not to employ the tactic of criminalising users in an attempt to reduce supply.

Long sentences for possession were a deliberate tactic employed at the start of the modern drug war in the 1970s, the hypothesis being that these draconian measures would deter users and reduce drug demand. It was a catastrophic failure. Drug markets continued to grow, and with them grew the incarcerated population and the burden on the state. Despite the clear failure of the policy, criminalisation of users became the norm. This had little if any effect on demand, created myriad health problems, and caused many other major problems in our prisons.

The PSA, after much wrangling, now includes a provision criminalising possession of users in prisons. The inclusion of a crime of possession in a custodial setting punishable by up to 2 years in prison shows either a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the problem or a token gesture to public sentiment to the detriment of the reality in prisons. The rise of NPS has been a response to the punitive approach to drugs, and a rising prison population, both of which, if there are sufficient resources to pursue convictions, will be fuelled by this measure.

It is possible that the PSA could drive up the wholesale price of NPS and materially affect the risk reward calculation for supplying the drug into prisons but there is no evidence this is happening. Due to the international scale of the market, and limited ability to intercept shipments of NPS owing to inadequate testing equipment, it is unlikely prices will be significantly driven up.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the PSA now threatens new legislation to “add psychoactive substances to the list of items that are a criminal offence to smuggle into prison, which could mean a prison sentence of up to 10 years for those found guilty”.23 We simply don’t have the capacity to be sending more and more people to prison for ludicrously long sentences, especially where there is no evidence or reason to believe this will alleviate the problem it purports to address.

“Better to get cannabis on your canteen. No debt, no violence.”24

At a recent Volteface event ex-governor Eoin McLennan-Murray made a call for a pilot prison in which we supply drugs to prisoners who need them in order to remove the violence associated with the trade and monitor the outcomes.25 There is an overwhelming feeling amongst many experts that so long as the market remains in the hands of criminals we will never get on top of the problem. Restricting supply would still be part of drug strategy, but it would instead be restricted to ensure that supply is from someone with appropriate training, supplying regulated products with known risk profiles and controlled doses.

Demand Reduction

“Prosecution, additional days in prison, segregation, ‘closed visits’ and a range of other potential penalties, are all on the cards for those who flout the rules.”[footnotes] MoJ press release of 25 Jan 2015[/footnotes]

The main response aimed at deterring drug use in prison is punishment and the threat of punishment. Within this are tools such as testing and searching to create a fear of capture, in the hope that it will reduce people’s willingness to take drugs. This approach can only work if the risk of detection is real and immediate from the prisoners’ perspective – a situation that is far from the reality. It also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of drug dependence. More than half of all prisoners have a history of drug or alcohol dependence, and will therefore be determined to continue using inside unless they engage in effective treatment. These individuals will not be deterred by the distant risk of detection.

Ask prisoners why they take drugs and resoundingly, the answer is boredom,26 yet our current drug strategy fails to address this. Ask addicts the key to recovery and the resounding response is connection and support, yet far too many of our addicted inmates spend their time in a dangerous environment with little opportunity for connection or support from fellow inmates or staff, or access to meaningful work, education, or other purposeful activities.

“A political strategy reluctant to ‘pamper’ prisoners has misunderstood the value of creative and other constructive opportunities.”27

The available evidence of different legal systems around the globe shows that there is no correlation between the level of punitive measures employed to tackle the drug trade and drug-taking decisions.28 Research of this nature would be very valuable in reassessing the successes and failures of prison drug policy in the UK. In the last six years, over 1,000,000 days, or nearly 3000 years of additional imprisonment has been imposed on prisoners found to have broken prison rules, despite no research proving its efficacy. The number of additional days handed out increased by 80 per cent from 14,741 in 2010/11 to 26,619 in 2016/17.29

Andrew Neilson, Campaign Director of the Howard League:
“Not all those days will be to do with drugs but a lot of them will be – either possession, failing mandatory drug tests or in some cases the violence and coercion associated with the market… Does any of this change prisoner behaviour? No. We are of course talking about people, many of whom, are inured to punishment.”30

Well intended or not, the penal systems’ over-reliance on punishment creates an environment where drug demand is bound to flourish. It feeds prison population growth and drains resources; leading to more and more prisoners spending longer periods inside prison, with increasingly lower levels of purposeful activity.

Naturally, punishment makes drug use in prisons clandestine. This, unintentionally, makes open discussion about drug use in prisons more difficult, creates a barrier to drug education within prisons, and stifles the peer-led cultural change that is repeatedly raised31 as an important part of prison reform.

As budgets have been cut and traditional enforcement methods have therefore become even less effective, an even more capricious system of punishment and enforcement has been created. Untrained wing staff are putting people on adjudications for the slightest unsubstantiated suspicion. This has a harmful and corrosive effect on prisoner-staff relations, which reduces effectiveness of intelligence-led security, and undermines the prison as a rehabilitative environment.

David Cameron – “We’ve got to sort out mental health treatment and drug treatment. This is one area where I believe that we, as a country, really need to ask some searching questions. There’s been a failure of approach, and a failure of public policy.”32


Flickr - Harry Metcalfe

It is uncontroversial to say that provision of drug treatment can reduce rates of reoffending. There are, however, problems associated with provision of treatment. The most commonly prescribed drugs in prison (methadone, buprenorphine and benzodiazepines) are regularly diverted and popular on the illicit market. It is therefore important to ensure that the dispensing of the drug is organised in such a way that prisoners cannot keep their dose for diversion. These efforts can never be completely effective, but close supervision of prisoners and sensible dispensing practices, to reduce visibility of those in receipt of buprenorphine, can have a positive influence. The costs of these measures should be considered when deciding whether to adopt expensive security measures, or prioritise spending on treatment.

“A good clinical detoxification regime is of paramount importance in tackling both supply and demand… It is essential that prisons provide adequate detoxification to reduce prisoners’ withdrawal symptoms and alleviate their need to import or purchase illegal drugs or other prisoners’ medication.”33

The provision of treatment in prisons is inherently difficult: One of the biggest problems is that the community isn’t set up to support honest peer-support and care, which are fundamentals of recovery:

“[Prison’s] brutal reality is far more likely to be damaging and traumatic than healing and rehabilitative.” 34

The provision of drug treatment in prisons is complex and challenging but the research is clear and uncontentious. Rates of re-offending and other adverse outcomes can be reduced by the provision of quality treatment. Inadequate detoxification and lack of aftercare can leave prisoners vulnerable to the illicit drug trade.

Drug free wings can offer opportunities and positive incentives to addicted-prisoners with a will to change. They provide a sensible risk-management approach, which recognises that drug use will continue in prisons, but those who have a willingness to change their habits should have access to an environment where temptations are reduced and positive mutual support is maximised. However, where drug free wings do not have sufficiently qualified staff or resources, opportunistic drug dealers can use the wing as a cover for dealing activity, ironically making drugs more available on drug-free wings than anywhere else in the prison.35

Drug-free wings need more than just good staff and resources, they need prison culture which provides prisoners with addiction support, well beyond the focus of drug treatment itself, to address major long-standing areas of difficulty in prisoners’ lives.

These wings offer enhanced privileges for those prisoners who commit to being drug-free. This is a rare example of incentivising prisoners to make positive changes to their lives, in a sea of punishment and retribution. The Incentives & Earned Privileges Scheme is frequently condemned by prisoners, who often believe there are no real incentives to try and achieve enhanced privileges.

"a complete waste of time and money"

Monitoring & Testing

“We don’t really know what drugs prisoners take: partly because we have never bothered to find out properly, and partly because prisoners themselves haven’t a clue what they are acquiring through an illicit drug market – a handful of pills wrapped in Clingfilm passed covertly around the wing does not come with an explanatory leaflet… Prisons don’t routinely test the chemical composition of what they find and hospitals tend not to carry out full toxicology reports on sick and violent prisoners. We simply have no real idea what prisoners are taking.”36

The explosion in the levels of use of NPS took much of the media, academia and the political class by surprise. If we are to make long term improvements to drug policy we need better information at our disposal to spot trends and to be proactive in responding to them.

“MDT is the prison service’s primary test of illicit drug use in prison. Eschewed by practitioners in the drugs field as a worthless and easily fiddled figure, the prison service clings to it like glue.”37

Mandatory drug testing (MDT) involves the random testing of inmates’ urine for evidence of drug use. MDT serves at least two main functions; one is to reduce demand through the threat of sanctions for those caught using drugs, the other is to monitor drug use in prisons. It attempts two functions and achieves neither. Instead the system works to drive prisoners to evade punishment by using drugs, which either do not show up or are only traceable for very short periods, or by falsifying their urine samples. The first change was away from cannabis to heroin. Once the drug of choice in prisons, cannabis remains in people’s system for about 14-28 days, whereas heroin only stays for a day or two. The subsequent shift was away from any drugs that could be tested for, towards black market medicines and SCRAs sold as spice.

Previous studies have shown that an overwhelming majority of prisoners believe that the threat of punishment from a positive MDT would not deter them from using drugs.38 In any event, due to the time and cost involved in the process this can’t be done frequently. During times of low resource, such as now, MDT is one of the first measures to be dropped,39 making it not only an ineffective means of punishing prisoners for their drug but also an unreliable and capricious one.

As far back as 1996, long before the rise to prominence of NPS, MDT was described as “’iniquitous’, ‘pointless’, ‘unethical, inefficient, ill-conceived’ and ‘a complete waste of time and money.’”40 Yet it has survived decades of near unanimous opposition from experts in the field, and continues at a time where very few of the most popular substances can be tested for. MDT works on one level and one level only, allowing officials to say that drug use has not increased. Positive MDT tests have stuck around 7% over recent years and the steady decline since MDT’s inception in the mid-nineties is repeatedly trotted out by NOMS and the MoJ as evidence of a successful drug policy despite the explosion of drug use and drug related harms we have seen in prisons since 2012.

The MoJ plans to “enhance our drug testing regime, supporting governors to enable drug testing on entry to and exit from prison as part of a more extensive testing programme, increasing the frequency and range of drugs tested for. This will better inform substance misuse treatment needs, making drug treatment more effective. It will reduce the health harms to prisoners and ensure better continuity of treatment on release into the community. It will also inform assessments of prisons’ performance”41

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, The Howard League for Penal Reform – “It is disappointing that the Ministry of Justice seems set on expanding a testing regime that has already failed. Given overcrowding means prisoners are often moved around the estate, testing every prisoner on reception and on release could result in hundreds of thousands of additional tests each year. Even then it’s hard to see what meaningful information such testing would provide. This idea could be a monumental waste of money and staff resources at a time when both are in short supply. Perhaps for that reason the White Paper is frustratingly unclear on precisely what the Ministry of Justice plans to do.”42


The usual line is “NPS are a wide array of relatively new and regularly changing substances for which testing is in its infancy.”43 Whilst true, this doesn’t go nearly far enough. The MoJ plan to address NPS revolves around the roll out of “new drug testing to track down dangerous psychoactive substances.”44 New tests are portrayed as an important game changer, “the complex task of combating the widespread violence in the estate will gain extra traction when we have … rolled out new drug tests… until this year, there have been no effective tests available to establish whether prisoners have taken these drugs.”45

There is repeated reference in the MoJ white paper to enhancing drug testing regimes as a means to reduce violence. As a means to reduce violence, more testing will do nothing as tests do not reduce demand for drugs and do little to influence supply, apart from shifting the supply to drugs that are not currently tested for. As a means of performance measurement for prisons they would make sense if they gave an accurate indication of whether people are abstaining from drugs in prison, but they do not.

The MoJ also claim that these new tests will improve drug treatment outcomes. Again, logic is absent from this statement. The proposed extension of mandatory drug testing will have no positive effect on drug treatment. Those who seek treatment already declare drug problems upon arrival at prison to receive detoxification medication. Those undergoing treatment already get voluntary drug testing and the proposals do nothing to protect prisoners or ensure better continuity of treatment.

Beyond the extension of MDT’s lack of relevance to treatment, demand and supply there is an even more fundamental problem with the proposed system- that it simply won’t work. The tests can only check for a finite list of substances. New tests for substances have to be developed and these can take considerably longer than the market takes to discover and supply a new substance in response to tests being created for previous substances.

Focus on testing is apparently to help monitor “progress in getting off drugs.”46 Even if the tests worked as a means of monitoring progress in getting people off drugs, which they will not, they could be counterproductive & increase the risk of death by overdose on release. The focus should instead be on reducing drug-related harms.

“We want to reduce the level of drug use in prisons, so we will develop for future years a measure to track ‘distance travelled’ by an offender in substance misuse via drug testing on entry and exit.”47 But rather than give a clear indication of distance travelled in prisoners’ drug use, it will instead give an indication of whether prisoners have used certain drugs at two relevantly arbitrary moments in time. “In the meantime, we will include as a measure the average rate of positive drug tests.”48 This intermediate measure gives no valuable information on either the rate of drug use or more importantly on the extent and nature of drug-related harms. This bizarre attitude flies in the face of more sensible and pragmatic metrics for health success, such as the number of drug-related medical emergencies.

One of the biggest problems with this policy is the lack of differentiation between prisoners who are on treatment programmes and trying to give up drugs, those who are taking drugs and will continue to do so, and those who have a vested interest in pushing drugs. Many of those who fall into the third category are not drug users, they do not use their product. One mistake is to think that by identifying users you will be able to reduce supply, suppliers and users are different groups. There will be more punitive measures but the people involved in the supply and distribution won’t be affected by that.

Drug seizures could provide potentially valuable information on disrupting supply chains but the way in which seizures are recorded only makes mention of the type of drug seized. The weight of the seizure isn’t recorded, not even roughly, meaning a seizure could be a trace amount or a kilo, there is no way to tell; nor is how the seizure was obtained recorded. On 23 March 2010 questions were asked in the House of Commons for clarification but no answer was forthcoming:

“Philip Davie: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice how many and what proportion of illicit drug seizures within prisons was attributed to (a) sniffer dogs, (b) closed circuit television (c) strip searches, (d) intimate searches, € searches of prison cells and (f) police intelligence in each of the last five years?
Maria Eagle: Information is not recorded in the format requested and would require requests for and detailed analysis of data returns from all prisons in England and Wales. To do so would incur disproportionate costs.

Mr Vara: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice how many (a) visitors, (b) staff and (c) prisoners were caught attempting to smuggle illegal drugs into prison in England in each of the last five years; and what steps have been taken in respect of those caught?
Maria Eagle: The data are not available in the form requested.”49

Without this data, the wealth of reports calling for increased security measures of one type of another are simply not grounded in evidence and there remains no reason to suggest that these methods are effective in reducing the supply of drugs into prisons. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect officers to gather this data in challenging times of low resource, but it is even more unreasonable to continue to expend considerable resources (to the detriment of demand reduction measures and rehabilitation) on increasing the use of these measures, with no evidence that increased activity works to reduce drug supply or demand.

If prisoners are going to do drugs they are going to do drugs.

Prison as a Microcosm of Society

“Prisons are a place where, in theory, the state has more control than anywhere else and yet the zero tolerance policy on drugs can be contrasted with the fact that nowhere are drugs more rife than in prisons.”50

If we were able to stem the supply of drugs anywhere, you would think that maximum security prisons would be the place. High walls, razor wire, security gates, sniffer dogs and extensive CCTV have not worked. Prisons are the place in our society in which drug use is most rife and drugs are most readily available. As in wider society, failed and unimaginative policies with poor or no grounding in evidence have failed to reduce the harms associated with drugs and created myriad new problems.

The same economic analysis applied to the failure of attempts to enforce supply controls on illicit drugs nationally and globally can be applied with even greater force to prisons: “Where there is demand for drugs, but no licit supply, a potentially huge profit opportunity is created for criminal profiteers… is that sort of profit that encourages the kind of entrepreneurial cunning that can get literally tonnes of drugs into high security prisons, year after year, crackdown after crackdown.”51

Our prisons are to a large extent microcosms of broader society. Prisons are busy places often with large numbers of new prisoners entering the gates on a daily basis along with hundreds of visitors, officers, staff, volunteers, health workers and others coming and going on a daily basis. Security in such dynamic environments presents a serious challenge.

“Despite the billions hosed into supply side drug enforcement each year, the illicit trade thrives, drugs are more available and cheaper than ever and the violent gangsters selling them get richer and richer. Not only is the analysis of supply and demand in an unregulated illicit drug trade the same at prison, national and international level, so evidently are the responses: announce a big crackdown, unveil some new technology, produce a new strategy, create a new agency (or rename an old one), then announce your process successes to show you are ‘doing something’… Regardless of scale all such efforts that attempt to defy economic reality are equally futile.”52

As with wider society, if prisoners are going to do drugs they are going to do drugs, but an acceptance of this does not mean the market will necessarily be whatever it will be. We can regulate the market to encourage low-risk forms of drug use and minimise harms. Attempts to eradicate the market lead to counter-effective shifts in the market, just as we saw with NPS, but there are alternatives.

“I don’t think there will be any real progress until drug use in prisons and in the wider community is treated as primarily a medical and social challenge. I think prisoners who are motivated to detox need to be accommodated in drug free units and offered appropriate support but simply relying on prosecutions and external adjudication system, adding extra days is not going to work. The question is; what evidenced-based approach can we take to get to grips with it?” 53

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