David Shipley

Drugs are costing the lives of too many prisoners

The Ministry of Justice insists that it has a 'zero tolerance approach to drugs in prison' (Credit: Getty images)

In prison, drugs kill. HMP Parc, a private prison in Wales managed by G4S, has seen six inmate deaths over a period of three weeks. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), the official body tasked with investigating deaths in prisons, soon realised that ‘at least’ two of those deaths were drug-related.

Imprisoned at HMP Wandsworth, I shared a cell with a regular spice smoker

The PPO believe that these deaths involve ‘spice’ combined with ‘another family of drugs’. Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid, popular in prison because it comes in the form of a liquid which can be impregnated on innocuous looking paper, making it easy to smuggle in. When smoked, it produces a sickly smell, and is often dangerous or deadly. It’s everywhere in our prisons.

In March 2020, imprisoned at HMP Wandsworth, I shared a cell with a regular spice smoker, and saw another man collapse on the wing after smoking it. While the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) insists that it has a ‘zero tolerance approach to drugs in prison’, the reality I observed as a prisoner was quite different. It was common knowledge among staff that particular men smoked spice but some degree of drug taking seemed to be tolerated; perhaps there just wasn’t the time to search every suspect’s cell.

Following the deaths at Parc, the PPO urged ‘all prisoners who are in possession of spice to dispose of it immediately’, and while the MoJ officially considers these deaths a matter for G4S, I understand from a senior person within the prison system that every jail in the country has issued a ‘Notice to Prisoners’ warning about this particularly dangerous drug.

Since the PPO’s announcement, it has been reported that a Probation Officer is being investigated for ‘allegedly smuggling’ spice into Parc. When I contacted G4S for comment, they noted that Probation staff are employed directly by the MoJ. A Probation Service spokesperson said: ‘It would be inappropriate to comment on a live investigation.’

Drugs don’t just kill. Their supply, along with the debts that users incur, can often be a trigger for violence. Prisons are, or should be, secure. That’s their most basic function. So how do drugs keep getting inside? For all the talk of drones, or contraband stuffed inside dead animals and thrown over the walls, the reality is more prosaic. Drugs, along with other contraband, are carried into the prison by staff, visitors and contractors.

I saw the proof of this myself in 2020 at HMP Wandsworth. It was common knowledge on A Wing that a particular officer smuggled contraband in, and was paid very well for it. I heard that he would receive £1,000 for a 50g pouch of tobacco. Drugs were easily available in Wandsworth; not just spice but even cocaine could be purchased. Once the Covid lockdown began, only prison staff were entering the establishment, and yet the supply of drugs continued. The conclusion is clear; enough prison officers are corrupted, either by money, coercion or inappropriate relationships with prisoners that they choose to risk their careers and freedom by bringing contraband into our jails.

In theory, this shouldn’t happen. The MoJ says it invested £100 million in tough security measures, including X-ray body scanners. But what good are body scanners which aren’t used? Last week, the Times published a damning investigation by Paul Morgan-Bentley. The reporter went undercover at HMP Bedford, where he observed lax security, scanners which were unmanned and ‘appeared to be switched off’, and, at one point, watched for half-an-hour while ‘officers, support workers and a cleaner’ walked inside the prison without being searched. HMP Bedford is unlikely to be the only prison where security is inconsistent.

Historically, the Prison Service has relied on random Mandatory Drug Testing (rMDT) across the entire estate to estimate the levels of drug usage in our prisons. Unfortunately all rMDT in prisons was ‘paused in March 2020‘ and have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. As a result, the MoJ is not currently able to provide any estimate of drug taking behind bars. The last figures available, for 2019-2020, estimate that at least 10 per cent of prisoners had taken drugs. This figure may not be accurate though, as testing is not necessarily able to identify when new synthetic drugs have been taken.

The government is trying to address the problem; in addition to supplying naloxone, a life-saving anti-overdose drug to prisons, 140 new staff have also been recruited into the Counter-Corruption unit, including 20 dedicated police investigators. This is welcome; corrupt staff cause a great deal of harm. Given the financial incentives and security failings, it is unfortunately likely that officers, staff and contractors will continue to bring drugs inside our prisons.

There is a simple solution: use the security equipment which has been installed. Every single person entering a prison should be searched. When I asked the MoJ for data on the percentage of prisons searching staff on entry they informed me that they do not publish that information. This seems bizarre. It should be made clear to corrupt staff that they will be scanned, searched and caught if they smuggle drugs into our prisons. This certainty would deter many from even trying. Until every prison institutes universal searching, the deaths, violence and misery caused by drugs will remain rife.

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