The spice of prison life

Published by the ipaper (5th December, 2016)

The ambulances turn up at Bristol Prison with monotonous regularity. Once every few hours, five times a day, up to 35 times a week, to treat inmates suffering drug overdoses, according to a new report by the Independent Monitoring Board. This is almost six times more often than just one year ago. Each time the offender must be accompanied by two officers from an overstretched staff to hospital, where hard-pressed doctors and nurses spend time fighting to save their lives.

Similar scenes can be found across the country. The drugs come in by drone, thrown over walls or smuggled in to the 600 men held in the category B prison. Once these would have been largely cannabis or heroin. Today it tends to be spice, often wrongly called synthetic cannabis although it covers a range of far stronger narcotics created in distant laboratories. It is usually sprayed on herbal materials. But it can even be sprayed over children’s paintings on paper and is virtually undetectable by sniffer dogs.

Consequences of use can be severe. Spice is associated with palpitations, paranoia, psychosis, seizures, skin infections and even suicide. One prisoner said he had seen someone stoned on it eating bread they dipped into a bowl of their own vomit, while another saw a zonked inmate drinking water from the toilet. ‘I felt my brain was being ripped out,’ said a third, trying to describe the effects. Yet one inmate in Bristol prison instantly told paramedics who revived him when his heart stopped beating that he would ‘do it again’.

This shocking problem is exposed again this week in a Volteface think-tank report into the prison drugs crisis. It shows in starkest possible terms how these nasty drugs have become a symbol of state failure on two fronts that undermine the safety of society. Few people outside the prison world care. Yet they should. For the corrosive rise in Spice use behind bars serves as a savage indictment of both the backfiring war on drugs and worsening problems inside prisons.

Consider the most basic point: how are prisons awash with the drug? These are designed to be the most secure buildings in Britain, bristling with barbed wire, cameras, dogs, guards and technology. Offenders must undergo mandatory testing. Yet the head of substance misuse at one prison says more than six in 10 inmates use it, while some offenders say the real figure is far higher. So what hope of stopping drugs accessing wider society? Especially when our nation’s annual consumption of cocaine could fit in one shipping container and we have 12,000 miles of coastline.

This proves prohibition never works, even in the most constrained circumstances. Worse, it shows the damaging impact of banning something desired by a market. The use of cannabis and heroin have fallen sharply, replaced by a range of synthetic drugs less detectable and more damaging. As one campaigner famously said, the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs. We saw this when alcohol was banned in the United States; drinkers in speakeasies switched from beer and wine to spirits since smaller, more potent, volumes are easier to smuggle. Now we see a sudden shift from cannabis to spice in jails, just as skunk has displaced milder marijuana on Britain’s streets.

One result is prison becoming more hazardous, both for staff and inmates – ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous’ according to the chief inspector. Assaults on inmates and officers have rocketed. There is one suicide every three days, twice the number five years ago. With big money to be made, gangs are thought to be getting members deliberately convicted to control prison markets. Violence spirals as groups fight turf battles – just as on the outside, devastating poor places and nations – and unpaid debts result in beatings. The Volteface report claims those unable to pay up are used as ‘spice pigs’ to test the strength of new supplies.

It also examines the largely ignored issue of corruption among poorly paid staff. Indeed, the spice epidemic underscores the appalling failure of prison reform. Successive justice ministers point out problems of overcrowding, recidivism and state failure to help criminals, who are often victims of family breakdown, mental health or addiction issues. Then they leave fragile and disturbed people to languish in cells, with budgets and staff numbers slashed in recent years. ‘Banged up 23 hours a day in a large toilet with someone you have never met before – who wouldn’t want a mind-altering substance?’ reflected one former prison governor recently.

The Justice Secretary Liz Truss is belatedly boosting staff numbers and making incremental improvements. Yet sadly she sidelined her predecessor’s crucial efforts to spread the use of problem-solving courts to tackle core social problems. She has also ruled out ‘arbitrary’ reductions in prison populations, yet Britain has the highest rates of incarceration in western Europe while several other nations have proved the wisdom of such a course. Fewer people in costly prisons means more cash for proper community-based punishments and healthcare. British politicians in office seem unable to grasp this simple equation, with the rare exception of Michael Gove, preferring to talk tough while acting weak.

We ignore the spice issue at our peril, since problems inside prisons have the potential to explode outside. Soaring use of these drugs among offenders proves how prohibition makes matters worse, while giving a glimpse into the savage and spiralling dystopia of prison life. Meanwhile drug reform gathers pace on the global stage. Unfortunately Britain prefers the naval-gazing of Brexit to sorting out fundamental problems of society that might make our country a better place for everyone.

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