Drugs in Welsh and English prisons

The use of legal highs in prisons in England and Wales has been rising over the past few years, creating new problems and requiring new measures to be implemented. Legal highs are synthetic chemical compounds that imitate the effects of traditional illicit drugs. Largely manufactured in south-east Asia, they are generally odourless and sold in hundreds of variations in chemical structure, making them difficult to detect and their effects often unpredictable.

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In fact, there is still no robust testing system capable of detecting the use of these substances.

Back in January, the Ministry of Justice revealed that to be aware of almost 4,500 instances in which substances had been taken from inmates in 2013\14, compared to just under 3,800 in 2010\11.The Ministry wisely chose to praise the security measures adopted for detecting these infractions instead of interpreting the data as a sign of the failure of government’s anti-drugs strategies. The data collected by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and released in a report last March showed that, while the number of prisoners testing positive for drugs has decreased over the past 15 years, at least 60% of the inmates regularly take synthetic drugs.

Such widespread consumption suggests that it is relatively easy to smuggle illegal substances into prisons. As BBC reporter Emily Thomas writes, visitors are the main way drugs get inside prisons. CSJ also revealed that in 2013\14 there have been 300 cases of visitors arrested in relation to drugs smuggling. Other, more creative, ways are also popular. For instance, in one jail in Scotland, Valium powder was added to the paint used for inmates’ children’s artworks. Other means involve corrupted staff, new or returning prisoners, and smelly foods like vinegar chips or Marmite.

Just as these substances are difficult to detect, their effects are difficult to predict and to identify. While drugs like cannabis have a relaxing effect on those using it, legal highs such as Spice or Black Mamba often trigger violence and psychosis. The Prisons and Probation ombudsman Nigel Newcomen conducted an official investigation made public in July, aiming at addressing the increasing concern about the use of legal highs within prison walls. The research found that psychoactive substances featured in at least 19 self-inflicted prisoner deaths in England and Wales between April 2012 and September 2014.In addition to the harm these substances do to inmate’s mental health, the price of drugs entails that many inmates contract debts and fall in a cycle of violence and intimidation.Connected to the rise in legal highs consumption is the rise in violence in prisons, presenting, among other issues, a real problem for prison officers.

Following these findings new, stricter, measures are being designed. A Home Office bill is currently going through parliament and is expected to lead to a blanket ban on legal highs being introduced in England and Wales from April 2016. Home Secretary Theresa May has already been warned by government drug advisers that such a ban would be unenforceable and it is likely that the current proposals will undergo some modifications, but the government approach could have some unintended results.

Many of the inmates taking legal highs are not first-time users, entailing that this is a problem that goes beyond the cells’ bars. In fact, CSJ reports that 60% of offenders taking synthetic drugs had taken them in the month before the arrest. Harsh measures alone are unlikely to succeed in reducing drug consumption within prison walls. For one, they could provide inmates with an incentive to look for new, undetectable and perhaps more dangerous, substances. After all, this is why legal highs were manufactured and consumed in the first place. Instead, not only would stricter rules such as keeping prisoners in their cells, restricting visits and stepping up searches not solve addiction problems, they could also undermine rehabilitation by reinforcing the need to evade, at least with one’s mind, from the prison walls.


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