‘Warehoused Prisoners Are Killing Themselves Over Huge Drug Debts’

by Hardeep Matharu

Inmates are killing themselves after racking up huge drugs debts inside prison, the trade union for prison officers has warned.

Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA), said the Government’s plans to crackdown on drugs through targeting mobile phones, criminal gangs and drones would come to nothing without more staff to stop drugs getting into jails.

At a meeting of the Cross-Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs, Alcohol and Justice last week, Mr Simpson said politicians must focus on how drugs are entering prisons and develop a proper understanding of how substances such as the psychoactive drugs Spice are fuelling violence and self-harm.

“Drugs in prison is not new, it’s just getting worse,” he said. “It’s getting worse because we’re not stopping it at the gate and that’s because there’s not enough of us to stop it coming in and despite how much legislation is in place it doesn’t stop it coming in either.

“One justice minister was absolutely surprised that the day after they put legislation in to make throwing something over the prison wall a criminal offence, that it was still going on. With that attitude, we’re not going anywhere to stop it coming in.”

The prison officer of 25 years’ standing told the group that measures such as increased cell searches were often futile.

“You see the misery drugs cause in prisons. Defensive cell searching is all well and good but if I’m a drug dealer in prison, I won’t be stupid enough to have it in my own cell,” Mr Simpson said. “So, what I’m going to do is bully somebody else to hold it for me and when their cell’s searched and it’s confiscated he then owes me and that’s the cycle that goes on.

“And then the bullying goes on because they owe vast amounts of money, their families are targeted on the outside to bring drugs in and that then stops them from coming in and visiting their loved-ones.

“And there’s the violence. When I joined in 1987 it was a beating, now they’re using twin razor blades to cut them across the face so they’re always scarred for life.

“We’ve seen people also taking their own life because they can’t cope with the drug debt they’ve got.

“Because it’s big business in prisons. If it might cost a tenner outside, it’ll cost £50 inside. Then, all of a sudden, not only have you got a drug addict but you’ve got a drug debt and that’s got to be paid and it’s just one vicious circle.”

Mr Simpson said the fruitless cell searches perversely look “good for the stats of the prison”.

When it came to Spice – rife in prisons where it is referred to as the ‘bird killer’ – the Prison Service was now “playing catch up”, he said, blaming its explosion on mandatory drug testing (MDT) of prisoners that was introduced in the mid-1990s to test inmates for cannabis and opiates.

“What has the MDT done?” Mr Simpson said. “I think it’s taken prisoners from soft drugs to hard drugs, that’s what it’s done because, when I joined, the drug of choice was marijuana, that was it. Now it’s all cocaine, heroin, New Psychoactive Substances. Why? Because it stays in the system less so they’ve got a better chance of beating the MDT because when they are found to be positive, we punish them. Why are we punishing them? Why aren’t we finding out why they’re taking them?

“Just talking to a prisoner and asking them why they are using drugs they say ‘because I’m bored and I’m locked up’.”

According to the Government’s latest safety in custody figures, self-harm and assaults and serious assaults between prisoners and on staff have all continued to increase to “record highs”. Last year, there were 29,485 assaults in prisons – a 13% rise from the year before.

“At the moment all we’re doing is – for want of a better word – warehousing them and making sure we get them alive to the end of their sentence and then they’re out the gate and it’s ‘thank God for that’,” Mr Simpson said.

“Violence is at record levels, self-harm’s going up, suicides. There’s 56 [currently unclassified] deaths in prisons where no reason has been given as to why they died. We know why – most of it’s down to Spice.

“Some people are coming into prison and they haven’t got a drug dependency but they’re going out with it. And that’s just down to how prisons are being run at the moment. They’re being run on a shoestring, there’s daily crisis management, there’s no planning, prisoners are assaulting each other and assaulting prison officers so our members are having to stay at home to recover.”

He said questions also had to be asked about why so many people with substance misuse issues were ending up in prison.

“The saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my career was when I was stood in the reception of Holme House prison and a prisoner came in and he said ‘I’m here to get off drugs for my family. There’s nothing in the community so I’ve had to commit an offence to come into prison’. That’s not right in a civil society. It’s not just about prisons, it’s in the community as well. We need to get the prisons and the community working together.”

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

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