Scanners, sniffer dogs and searching alone cannot tackle prolific drug use in our prisons

by Hardeep Matharu

The extent to which drugs have taken hold in our jails was detailed by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in his annual report last month.

“The ready availability of drugs in too many of our prisons sits behind much of the violence,” Peter Clarke said. “We are regularly told by prisoners how easy it is to get hold of illicit drugs in prisons and of the shockingly high numbers who acquire a drug habit while they are detained.”

Last week, he voiced the same concerns when the Government announced its temporary takeover of HMP Birmingham from G4S.

With the highest levels of violence of any prison of its kind in the country, Mr Clarke said he was astounded at “one of Britain’s leading jails slipping into a state of crisis that is remarkable even by the low standards we have seen all too frequently in recent years”.

One of the key failures he identified was the “blatant” use and trafficking of drugs.

Illustrating the futility around the issue at the prison, he wrote: “When inspectors at one point raised the fact that drugs were clearly being smoked on a wing, the response from staff was to shrug.”

On the face of it, the Government cannot be accused of the same resignation.

Days after HMP Birmingham was brought under state control, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said that his key task was to reduce violence in prisons, with the new psychoactive substance (NPS) Spice being its biggest cause.

His focus, he said, was on massively reducing the supply of drugs, as well as restoring basic decency to our prisons and providing training and support for prison officers to enable them to challenge the behaviour leading to violence.

“We have an increasingly detailed understanding of how new psychoactive substances have driven prisoners into aggressive frenzies and self-harm and trapped them in dangerous drug-debt,” he wrote last week. “And we have better intelligence on how organised criminal gangs smuggle the substances in.

“But, we should and can do far more to improve our basic security procedures. Better netting and window-grilles will prevent throw-overs and drones, new body scanners will detect drugs being smuggled in through the gate. So will more sniffer dogs. And we need to improve our searching of everyone who enters the prisons – accepting that, although the vast majority of families and prison officers are not engaged in the trade, we need to search and catch those who are.”

Mr Stewart’s pledge followed other Government announcements in recent months on its determination to “fight drugs and improve security” across the prison estate. £10 million will be spent on 10 of the most violent prisons (although this does not include HMP Birmingham) on new scanners to detect packages inside bodies, sniffer dogs trained to smell psychoactive substances and improved perimeter fences, with Mr Stewart vowing to resign if these 10 prisons cannot turn things around within 12 months. This is in addition to another £7 million for airport-style security scanners, enhanced searching techniques, phone-blocking technology and improving intelligence around organised crime.

A focus on reducing violence in our prisons is clearly welcome, as is the recognition that tackling drug use is key to this. But, beyond stabilising the situation, can the measures announced by the Government lead to any lasting change? It is difficult to see how.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While drugs have always been a feature of prison life, Spice the brand name for a group of drugs called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), originally designed to mimic the effects of cannabis in a legal way has caused chaos in recent years as the ‘psychological cosh’ of choice among inmates. Leaving users aggressive, comatose or anything in between, it has gained a toxic foothold in prisons lacking staff, decent conditions and meaningful regimes.

The realities of drug markets are such that Spice in prison continues to evolve. A plant-based form of the drug smoked with tobacco has already given way to Spice that is sprayed onto paper and enters jails in the guise of prison mail for inmates, which is then rolled up and smoked. Whether sniffer dogs, however well trained, will be able to keep apace with the changing chemical compounds in Spice is questionable.  

The Government’s attempts to legislate its way out of the issue have not worked. The 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which made the supply and possession of Spice in prisons illegal, has had little to no impact on the availability of or demand for the drug.

The law of unintended consequences that often operates in drug markets has also been ignored. Reports suggest that the prison smoking ban, introduced over the past two years, has led to an increase in Spice use as it is now vastly cheaper than tobacco. Left without lighters which can no longer be bought from the prison canteen, inmates are now using the elements in vape devices, fashioning makeshift bongs and taking apart the electrical wiring of kettles to smoke Spice.

Such a lucrative market is Spice, with much of it linked to organised crime, that it is hard to imagine it being definitively halted. Barter no longer acts as prison currency, with drug dealing inside becoming an increasingly professionalised pastime. Facilitated by illicit phones, debts are commonly settled by relatives or friends on the outside, who pay into a bank account and inform the inmate dealer when this is done. For some prisoners, Spice is such big money that a deliberate recall to prison is an attractive option to deal some more and add to illicit nest eggs.

Other uncomfortable truths must also be acknowledged. Drones may make for colourful headlines but most drugs are thrown over the prison wall, are hidden in post or are carried in – including by prison staff. A blind eye cannot be turned to young and inexperienced officers working in violent environments awash with drugs on modest salaries who are susceptible to corruption and Mr Stewart is right to recognise the need to be open to tackling this.

Fundamentally, however, the Government’s focus on security does not address why demand for drugs in our prisons is so high, and the more challenging question remains: how can we stop prisoners turning to drugs?

As Volteface has argued, supply reduction measures can only disrupt supply, not eradicate it, so there needs to be a shift in emphasis towards making prisons more effective places of rehabilitation and tackling problematic drug use.

In a report into a 500-inmate riot at HMP Birmingham in December 2016 – released by the Government under Freedom of Information last Monday – investigators said that they were repeatedly told by prisoners that “brazen drug use was tolerated”, while staff said they felt “powerless to intervene due to shortages and the perception you would be exposed or isolated if you were the ‘one who challenged’”.

“We asked the Prison Council why prisoners resorted to psychoactive substances, not least because of the known health risks,” the report states. “The simple answer was that it was a ‘bird killer’ – in other words, days of imprisonment spent in oblivion, to counter the effects of boredom and inactivity, the market for such distraction was more marked at Birmingham where structured activity was lacking and regime was inconsistently delivered.”

That a lack of purposeful activity and poor conditions drives drug use is clear. Busy, meaningful regimes and effective support for those using drugs would be far better at managing drug problems than focusing only on increasing security measures. But, this requires investment and bold thinking by politicians undeterred by tabloid headlines and the fact that this cannot be packaged as a quick-fix solution.

Investing in security to tackle drugs and violence in our prisons is ultimately an exercise in confronting symptoms, not causes. Without an honest, pragmatic understanding of why prisoners are turning to the likes of Spice, drug use in our jails will continue to deteriorate, not reduce.

Hardeep Matharu is a senior writer and researcher at Volteface. Tweets @Hardeep_Matharu

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