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New report from drug campaign group volteface exposes the chaos caused by the use of Spice and other NPS in prison and sets out a 5-point action plan.

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High stakes

A new (8 December 2016) report from volteface High stakes: an inquiry into the drugs crisis in English prisons” provides a forensic examination of the current mounting problem of the abuse of New Psychoactive Substances in prisons.

As we know, prisons are in crisis with record levels of suicides, violence and self-harm. Traditional drugs have been replaced by a family of drugs called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, generically referred to as ‘black mamba’ or ‘spice.’ volteface argues that the government has failed to recognise the important policy implications of these new drugs and that the lack of intelligent drug policy in the new prison reform white paper risks undermining the entirety of the proposed prison reforms.

The report reviews the rise of spice in men’s prisons in England and argues that the many substances which go under that term have risen to prominence globally in response to international prohibition of popular illicit substances, in particular cannabis. These new substances have relatively unknown risk profiles and many induce paranoia, behavioural disturbances, violence, seizures and convulsions. They are particularly popular in prisons due to their low cost, difficulty to detect and “bird [prison sentence] killing” effects.

Drug demand

The report goes on (quite rightly) to argue that too little is being done to fight drug demand within prisons. Prisoners are often left unoccupied in their cells for 23 hours a day. Many prisoners are developing drug problems during their incarceration. The report claims that 8% of men in prison in England and Wales report developing a drug problem since they had been in prison and points out that this increasing drug use and the frequency of dangerous incidents have become a substantial drain on limited prison staff resources.

This feeds a vicious cycle further draining resource and is leaving prisoners increasingly unoccupied and under supervised. As staff capacity is reduced this further decreases the ability of prisons to perform essential functions in disrupting the supply of drugs into prisons leaving criminal organisations able to push drugs with impunity.

The report argues that  the supply reduction methods proposed in the White Paper are expensive distractions from the real work needed to disrupt criminal supply chains. Proposed extensions to the mandatory drug testing regime will be impracticable with the available resources, only identify a limited range of the drugs in circulation and fail to assist in identifying those supplying drugs. New sniffer dogs will quickly become obsolete due to the rate of chemical innovation of new substances.

The report points out that mandatory drug testing and records of seizures give very little assistance in terms of understanding who is supplying drugs, who is using drugs, what drugs are in circulation, how drugs are getting into prisons or the level and nature of harm associated with drug use in a given prison.

Drugwise NPS2


The report makes five key recommendations which are replicated in full below:

  1. Risk management not zero tolerance – a chasm exists between the prevailing rhetoric and policy reality. In order to manage prisons effectively efforts need to focus on disrupting supply chains, reducing demand for drugs and improving intelligence-gathering. Reducing drug-related harms makes prisons safer places in which rehabilitation is more effective. Helping addicted drug-users who are willing to change to turn their lives around is proven to reduce re-offending rates. See this RAPt report for a more detailed action plan.
  2. Reduce demand through purposeful activity – There needs to be an acceptance that supply reduction measures are there to disrupt supply, they are not there to eradicate it. A shift of emphasis towards demand reduction is required to make prisons more effective places at tackling problem drug habits and rehabilitating offenders. There is a clear link between a lack of purposeful activity and the uptake of drug use. Busy prison regimes and treatment are more effective than security measures in managing the drug problem in our prisons. The long-held emphasis on supply reduction over demand reduction creates an increased burden on staff, logistical and management difficulties and associated difficulties in implementing new policies, supporting work, training, education and treatment schemes. These costs too often go uncounted.
  3. Overhaul monitoring of drug use – An essential part of effective management is using appropriate, reliable metrics for measuring success and failure. The Ministry of Justice’s recommendations to monitor prisons’ drug policy outcomes via drug testing prisoners on arrival and exit from prison will not provide reliable or useful data. Instead, a system should be implemented to monitor the nature and scale of the drug market and drug-related harms. Regular anonymous audits of drug use and the drug market could provide valuable information from treatment staff, prison officers, current and ex-prisoners.
  4. Overhaul monitoring of drug supply and security – Current supply-reduction and security measures are not grounded in evidence. New proposed measures focus on drones and visitors when there is no evidence that these are the primary sources of supply. There is considerable anecdotal evidence suggesting corrupt staff may be a major source of supply. Evidence gathering is needed on drug seizures to assist in determining their providence, as well as a new regional task force within the Prison Service to oversee periodic spot checks and searches of staff.
  5. Improve staff to prisoner ratio – Overseeing busy prison routines and effective treatment is a labour-intensive endeavour with no quick-fix technological solutions. In order to bring about this reform we need a better staff to prisoner ratio. To do so means that the we need to either substantially reduce the prison population or substantially increase prison funding. Reducing the prison population likely has both fiscal and outcome benefits by reducing the use of a costly and ineffective intervention.

It’s hard to argue with these recommendations. For me, the most important one is the need for more purposeful activity. Both the volteface and User Voice reports into the use of NPS in prison highlight its function as a “bird-killer” — easing the pain of incarceration. Getting prisoners out of the cells for most of the day and allowing them to study or undertake meaningful activities in the evenings are much better bird-killers than Spice.


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