High Stakes

3. Supply & Demand



“Drugs is what everyone’s thinking about [in prison] not a day goes past when you don’t hear the word ‘drugs’.”1

The prison environment is one in which demand for drugs flourishes. As the prison population has grown, so too has the market for drugs in our prisons, with over 1 in 3 prisoners reporting to have used drugs in the last month.2 A large number of prisoners have established drug problems. Nearly two thirds of prisoners have used illicit drugs in the month before entering custody,3 and 25% of all new arrivals receive treatment from prison medical services for substance misuse within three weeks of their arrival at prison.4 Of those who do not already have a history of drug use, many choose to use drugs for the first time when they are incarcerated. The prison drug market is well set to prosper.


“When you feel trapped, which is basically all the time, when you smoke [drugs] it makes you feel free, makes the bars disappear, makes you relax and not too bothered about being there.”5

While it is important to remember that a large proportion of the prison population are regular drug users with a history of dependence, previous research has consistently found that the largest driver for drug demand in prisons is boredom and the need to pass time.6 Escapism, relaxation and stress relief are also commonly mentioned as motivations to use drugs. Other factors include self-medication for both physical and mental health problems, the control of withdrawal symptoms from addiction, and the increasing availability of substances within prison walls.


Flickr - Alexander C. Kafka

As well as near-universal access to NPS, there is widespread access to prescription medications within prisons for addiction, mental health and pain. Many of these medications have psychoactive properties, making them popular for recreational use. Medications are frequently diverted away from those who were prescribed the drugs, onto the illicit market. Traditional illicit drugs, particularly heroin and cannabis, are also still commonly used (albeit to a lesser extent than spice) because they meet the type of drug demand most common in prisons – to alleviate pain and boredom.

As prisons continue to suffer from understaffing and overcrowding, more wings have to go into lockdown, often leaving prisoners confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Boredom increases, demand for drugs rises, and so does the likelihood of misuse, and serious incidents occurring, such as hospitalisation. Spice is now so associated with hospitalisation that prison slang for an ambulance is a ‘mambulance’; a reference to a popular brand name for SCRAs “Black Mamba.” If an inmate has to go to hospital, so too do two officers, which increases prison lockdown time and feeds into the vicious cycle. In 2015, levels of purposeful activity in prisons were the lowest level ever recorded, and have not improved much over the last year in men’s local prisons.7

Hospitalisations also put a considerable extra strain on emergency services and the NHS. At HMP Bristol this year, there were 35 ambulance call outs for spice-related incidents in just one week,8 at a prison with a population of around 600. To put this in perspective, HM Inspectorate noted in 2014 that spice was a particular problem because there had been 7 ambulance call outs for spice-related incidents in 6 months.9

Prisons are now so over-crowded and under-staffed that prisoners’ fears of repercussions for misbehaviour are much lower than they once were. Many are more likely to take the risk of buying drugs, as there’s an increasing belief that prisons are just too crowded, and officers too overstretched, for dealers and consumers to be caught.

However, drug use in prisons cannot be understood purely by looking at demand. A sophisticated market has arisen to meet this demand which itself influences demand, in which suppliers push drugs with a high mark-up and low risk of capture. The rise and fall of usage rates for different drugs can’t be seen in isolation. They are deeply intertwined. If users can’t find a supply of their drug of choice then they are likely to shift to other drugs to meet their demand.

Both the visitor and the inmate must avoid detection from sniffer dogs, CCTV, officer supervision and searches.


“The demand for drugs in prison is so great and the profits so astronomical that a situation exists where economic pressures ensure a supply route will always be found.”10

Drug markets differ widely from prison to prison. Each individual environment shapes the trade through complex interactions between demand, supply, security, enforcement strategies and treatment strategies. Previous reports have assessed the supply of drugs into different prisons and identified five main routes of entry for illicit drugs; visitors, staff, over the wall, post, and prisoners, as well as diversion of medication onto the illicit market from within the prison.11

An important part of a prisoners’ rehabilitation is their maintenance of ties with family and friends. However, visits from these people come with risks of smuggling contraband. Visitors may smuggle drugs into prisons to protect their loved ones from debt, bullying and violence whilst others work under duress from organised crime groups or for their own financial gain.

Smuggling requires the evasion of a range of security measures. Both the visitor and the inmate must avoid detection from sniffer dogs, CCTV, officer supervision and searches, usually by concealing the drugs internally either in the vagina, rectum (“plugging”), or the back of the throat.

“Many find this process an extremely frightening and exhausting ordeal. For instance, they may have got involved as a result of intense emotional pressure or even physical intimidation. Others, sometimes drug-using friends of the prisoner, may have developed a tried and tested approach which gives them little cause for concern.”12

Large numbers of visitors are turned away when ‘knocked’ (where a sniffer dog has a suspicion). Anecdotally, it seems that many people are denied visits despite not being in possession of any controlled substances. Data is not collected in such a way to show the levels of this phenomenon.

Despite extensive security measures, visitors who are in possession of drugs are particularly difficult to detect, for three principle reasons. Firstly, internal concealment of drugs is very hard to tackle, given the legal and moral constraints on intimate searches; secondly, contact visits make the passing of contraband relatively easy to achieve; and thirdly, many of the security measures are inconsistently enforced.13 In any event, the substances causing the most harm in our prisons are currently undetectable by sniffer dogs, even specially trained ‘spice dogs’ are only able to detect a few of the most common two hundred-plus different SCRAs.

Thousands of prisoners arrive at prisons every day; either for the first time, on a transfer from another prison, or from a court or hospital visit. Those who have come straight from a court hearing will have known they may end up in prison; it is therefore common among these prisoners to hide drugs about their person either to ensure their own supply, as mules for another supplier, or a potential source of income inside the prison. Prisoners have also been known to smuggle contraband when returning from activities performed on release on temporary licence.

Flickr - Alexander C Kafka

The Ministry of Justice in 2009 – “The unpalatable but inevitable conclusion is that corrupt staff constitutes a significant supply route for drugs into prisons.”14

While the incidents of supply of drugs into prisons by staff may be lower, staff are able to bring in far higher quantities because they have the unique ability to bypass some of the security procedures that visitors and prisoners have to undergo and so, it seems, are able to go un-noticed. Recent seizures in prisons of up to 5kg of illegal substances15 have been accredited by some to staff corruption because packages of this size are highly unlikely to have arrived via any other method. Staff corruption may be motivated by personal gain or connected to wider organised crime groups.

“Once an officer has been persuaded to bring in any contraband once, he or she is vulnerable to blackmail and may find it very difficult to stop doing so.”16

A report released on 5th December 2016 by Buzzfeed News reveals alleged wide scale corruption in prisons.17

“Adrian Lovell, who worked as a drugs prevention officer at HMP Wandsworth until last year, said corrupt officers were responsible for bringing in as much as 80% of the contraband found in prisons.”18

A market with this scale of demand and potential profit cannot be eliminated through supply reduction methods alone. Applying too much pressure on supply routes increases the incentive to corrupt prison staff, which has a negative impact on the entire prison estate.

“It would be astonishing if there was not a corruption problem in prisons. Have we not perfectly constructed an environment where corruption could only flourish? Corruption is crime and crime will proliferate where four things come together: opportunity, motive, gain and low risk of capture… This is not to say we cannot deal with it, minimise its effects, catch and convict the perpetrators and generally improve the safety and security which corruption destroys.”19

Issues of the corrupting effect of the drug trade on the Prison Service have been raised previously. In 2005 a report by the Metropolitan Police and Prison Service anti-corruption unit led by Lord Blair found that at least 1000 prison staff were corrupt.20 However, there has never been sufficient political will to effectively tackle the issue. Suspicions of corruption are now on the increase with an over-burdened system with little capacity for oversight of officers. It is hard not to see the likelihood of prison officers accepting bribes with minimal training, low pay, and an unstoppable drug market. There are instances of officers on only £17,187 per annum accepting £500 bribes to smuggling a mobile phone into a prison.21 The MoJ are yet to set out any clear plans for improving the situation with corruption, although the new white paper says they are “developing a new strategy.”22

Prisons can be busy places, with hundreds of different professionals coming and going during the day, including health professionals, cleaners, contractors and solicitors. As well as uniformed staff, these other visitors are vulnerable to duress or corruption, making the net of potential crime wider and harder to detect.

As towns and cities become ever-increasingly built up, so prisons are now in closer proximity to other buildings, within busy urban locations. This makes it easy for prisoners with contacts on the outside to throw packages over the wall to be retrieved by those inside. The under-staffing problem has made this method easier still, as guards are unable to perform enough routine perimeter searches to secure the building.

Traditional over the wall methods have had a modern revamp in recent years, with the advent of cheap drones, capable of flying material over prison walls. This has gained much media attention but there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest it is a major source of supply. 23

Post remains a main route of entry for illicit substances. Various NPS have been particularly insidious because they can be hidden in otherwise innocuous looking items, or sprayed onto paper such as a letter or a child’s drawing. Some prisons have gone to the lengths of re-writing letters for inmates, to ensure that the letter itself isn’t the contraband – a very time and resource intensive process for an already over-stretched staff.

Some drugs are already inside the prison.

Many prisoners are either pressured or motivated into handing over their medications for use on the illicit market.

“Drugs prescribed in tablet form and required to be taken under supervision can be stuck under the tongue, by the gum or on the roof of the mouth, to be scraped off later in the cell, or spat down prisoners’ jumpers or tracksuit bottoms for later retrieval.”24

The supply of drugs into prisons lies in the hands of criminals and organised crime groups. The only form of regulation which operates in illicit markets is violence and coercion. The supply of drugs into prisons is a violent, pernicious business, and the majority of prisoners and ex-prisoners agree that it is the major cause of violence between prisoners.25

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some prison drug markets have been so dominated by organised crime groups that they are the sole suppliers, while others have just a low level sharing and bartering economy. There are some prison markets, which seem to lie somewhere in between, with moderate involvement of organised crime groups, low level opportunistic vendors, as well as those using or sharing their own supplies.

Payment for drugs can take the form of bartering for canteen items such as tobacco and food; outside payments, with other people using intermediaries in the community; exchanging personal property; swapping drugs for other drugs; providing services (usually as a runner in the drug trade); and rarely – cash.

The prison drug trade is now increasingly fuelled by the use of debt. Debts for drug transactions can lead to bullying and controlling vulnerable inmates. The most vulnerable people, often those with severe mental health problems and no money, will suffer the highest rates of interest. Organised crime groups can tap into friends and family outside the prison as a guarantee for a prisoner’s loan. These pressures can lead to self-harm and suicide among the vulnerable. In extreme cases prisoners’ families have been known to turn to prostitution to clear their debts. Other families have been blackmailed with footage of violence to their incarcerated family member taken on an illegal mobile phone.26

Sources who wish to remain anonymous state that burglars with heroin problems are able to rack up enormous debts at low rates of interest because dealers are confident in their ability to repay the debts. These same burglars are then under intense pressure to reoffend within days of release to pay off the debts they accrued during their incarceration.

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