reasons for spice
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The true horrors of using NPS in prison

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A report by User Voice for the NHS confirms that synthetic cannabinoid Spice is the most popular drug in prison and causes serious health & security problems. Its popularity is attributed to its "bird killing" properties.

Prisoners talk about legal highs inside

There has been considerable concern about the rapid rise in the use of legal highs or New Psychoactive Substances in prison over the last 18 months with the Justice Secretary Michael Gove acknowledging the seriousness of the issue.

Last week (31 May 2016), User Voice published a report commissioned by the NHS based on interviews with 120 serving prisoners and a self-report questionnaire with 684 prisoners in nine prisons.

Key findings

Some of the key findings are set out below, with quotes from prisoners consulted for the report.

Spice is now the most popular drug in prison

One in three prisoners surveyed reported using the synthetic cannabinoid Spice in the previous month.

The last-month use of Spice was over three times higher than in a 2014 report. Indications are that use of Spice is widespread and normalised in the prison estate:

Spice has taken over the drug culture in prison … it’s reached epidemic levels.

Lack of a drug test

The absence of a drug test enhances spice’s popularity and ensures a constant supply to meet demand although possession in prison has been outlawed for some time. Formerly legal outside prison, it has never been permitted to bring them into a prison, inmates therefore think the recent Psychoactive Substances Act (implemented on 26 May 2016) will not have a great effect on the supply in prison.

The widespread and tolerated use of Spice is attributed to its ability to make time, and a prison sentence (“bird”), go by in a blur. Hence the nickname, the bird killer:

It kills time, takes your mind away, it’s like a bird killer. Your problems disappear cos you don’t think about them.

Some prisoners report that spice users are sometimes punished without proof they are using the drugs because staff have to make a decision based on guesswork as there is no test.

The harmful consequences of spice use

Inmates related stories of escalating debts to the gangs dealing spice; spiraling mental health issues connected with usage; of horrific bullying, including ‘spiking’ people and forcing users to overdose for entertainment. Other physical effects include seizures, fits, palpitations and skin infections.

It makes you physically weak, some people can’t breathe properly … soaking with sweat, feet sweat so much, they’re like squelching in your shoes.

Lack of treatment for substance misuse and mental health

People with untreated mental health and drink and drug problems are being left in prison with no services addressing their needs and happy to take huge risks with their health. People taking drugs to self-medicate existing conditions turned to spice in prison – prisoners reported that they didn’t know what was in the drugs they were taking, but still reported a willingness to take the substances despite some horrific reactions:

If there wasn’t spice it’d be something else … people can’t cope with prison.

Untrained staff means that many prisoners have become very ill

Inmates say they are unlikely to report problems as staff, desensitized and untrained, seek to punish users, and that the lack of harm reduction training for staff is doing further damage. Pressures have coincided with cuts, meaning for example prisoners being left in their cells more:

There isn’t enough staff here to do everything, and the staff that are here are too busy dealing with spice for anything else.

Conclusion

The main findings and recommendations of the report are nicely summarised in the infographic below:

[There are current vacancies with User Voice and as RAPt prison drug workers on the Jobs Board.]

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