George McBride

How to beat the prison drugs epidemic

How to beat the prison drugs epidemic
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Pity the prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, who last week found himself explaining the term ‘potting’ to MPs on the justice select committee. For those unacquainted with the depraved state of our jails, let me save you the trouble of reading the exchange on Hansard: ‘potting’ is to throw faeces and/or urine over a prison officer. He didn’t get round to discussing the meaning of ‘mambulance’. But every day – with alarming frequency – sirens blare as an ambulance races to a prison to deal with another cardiac arrest, violent assault or attempted suicide of a prisoner, high on one of many drugs referred to as ‘spice’ or ‘black mamba’ (hence 'mambalunce').

It has big knock-on effects. Prisoners taken to hospital must be accompanied by two prison officers. So the wing the officers would otherwise be patrolling is put on lockdown, with prisoners confined to their cells for the rest of the day. That means no classes, work or medical appointments – and little chance of rehabilitation. A recent inspection report on Hindley Prison, near Wigan, stated that ‘most prisoners often spent less than half an hour out of their cell in a 24-hour period’. Above all, this leads to increased demand for drugs – with inmates, who are often mentally unstable, looking for ways to relieve their boredom.

The staff shortage isn't helping. Over the last 12 months, 300 more officers have left the prison service than have been recruited, despite huge efforts to hire more. This is fuelling a vicious cycle. As more staff leave, and prisoners are locked up more, so drug demand goes up. As drug demand goes up, so too does the frequency of dangerous incidents. Who would willingly choose to work in that environment?

The government's solution, revealed in a recent White Paper, is to ratchet up the current, failed policies of using sniffer dogs and mandatory drug testing in an attempt to reduce the supply of drugs. But those are exactly what spice and black mamba are designed to evade. More to the point, a new psychoactive substance enters the European market at least every week. Drug tests and sniffer dogs simply can't keep up.

What the government should be focusing on instead is reducing demand for drugs in prisons. And the major drivers are boredom and addiction. There can be no quick fix. The solution is to make prisons busy places, hives of activity, where offenders are not given the chance to sit idly in their cells for long stretches – but spend most of the day working or in the classroom, or in treatment for addiction. This will be labour-intensive and will require a much better staff-to-prisoner ratio.

The unpalatable and ineluctable truth is that we need to either substantially reduce the prison population or substantially increase prison funding and staff numbers. The other option is to continue as we are – with prisons as warehouses that encourage criminality, and spit out more drug addicts than they take in.

George McBride is the author of the VolteFace report 'High Stakes' on drugs in prisons