I spoke to ex prisoners about their thoughts on rising levels of legal highs in UK prisons

With increasingly intelligent search methods and the use of more intricate body scanners, you’d think that drug use in prisons would have shrunk over the years. But a £900m cut in funding during the last parliament has meant that prisons are becoming increasingly more dangerous. In four years, the number of operational staff has shrunk from 29,660 to 23,080 meaning that resources are stretched, staff are overworked and mistakes are more frequently made.

These mistakes can vary in severity, from forgetting to fill out paperwork, to not paying adequate attention to prisoners’ mental health or day-to-day activities. With shrinking numbers of staff, prisoners are increasingly being kept in cells for up to 23 hours a day without exercise, education or training. With nothing consistent to fill the time, some prisoners are reaching the end of their tether.

As a result, the demand for drugs has shot up.

But not illegal drugs. The introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has meant that legal highs, like Spice or Black Mamba are now illegal inside prisons. What’s interesting about this is the number of prisoners testing positively for drugs by Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) has come down over the last 15 years, yet the scope of drugs has increased tenfold. The reason? Unlike cannabis, which can be discovered in the bloodstream for up to a month, many legal highs do not leave a trace due to their chemical structure. MDT has pushed prisoners firstly towards heroin, which disappears in the blood stream after 24 hours, and then onto legal highs – due to availability and, of course, the lowered risks of detection.

David*, an ex prisoner who served time in three different prisons throughout his sentence, said: “The use of legal highs has increased and that is mainly due to the prisons refusing to test for it in the MDT programs. Don’t get me wrong; it could have been tested, although the test for it is rather more expensive than the one used for illegal drugs. So the issue was more of an economical one.”

This, for prisoners, can be both a blessing and a curse. While legal highs carry a smaller risk of being caught and punished, they are often sold as ‘research chemicals’ and as such, do not come with dosage recommendations or tips. Somewhat ironically, the lack of research means that long-term effects are unknown, and will stay this way for many years. As a result, prison staff have almost become desensitized to watching the fits, delusions and paranoia that comes as a side effect of incorrect dosage or allergic reaction.

David told me about his first direct experience of seeing someone react badly to legal highs: “When [the inmate] had taken it, he placed himself inside the hot plate at the food server and walked away – well, he was stretchered away – with third degree burns. When I next saw him, he had no recollection of the event.”

Benito Graffagnino, an ex prisoner who served his time at HMP Guys Marsh, said: “Personally, I only ever smoked Spice once, which was a complete mistake. The drug is so powerful and dangerous that sometimes your so-called friends would give you the drug and think it was hilarious when the side effects kicked in.

“I was a prisoner who knew pretty much everyone on the wing and what was going on, and although I never got involved, there was a serious problem with buying and selling Spice. I overheard conversations of how Spice was entering Guys Marsh and I was good friends with a guy who sold it on the wing when he had it.

“I was intrigued and I asked him questions on how much he made, and the whole process involved in obtaining and selling Spice – he even told me he could ‘lay’ me on some Spice and I could pay him back when I made my money from it.”

There are now over 200 types of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) – legal equivalents of cannabis. They are the largest group of legal highs and are commonly created by spraying chemical compounds onto plant mixture, which is then ground up and smoked like traditional cannabis. It is usually scentless; a primary reason for its rise in popularity in prisons.

John Podmore, writing for The Guardian, highlighted the dangers of taking these unknown substances: “Prisoners themselves haven’t a clue what they are acquiring through an illicit drug market. Prisons don’t routinely test the chemical composition of what they find and hospitals tend not to carry out full toxicology reports on sick and violent prisoners.”

David told me he thinks legal highs are much more dangerous than illegal drugs: “Many years ago, if the wing smelled of marijuana, the officers tended to ignore it as if the prisoners were ‘stoned’ then they were calm. That obviously is not the case with legal highs, therefore it is reported more. There are more ambulances ordered and therefore the public gets to hear of it more. Regrettably it is now rampant.”

With the rise in variety of substances of this type comes a rise in harm levels inside prisons. The term ‘Mambulance’ (coined as such due to the frequent emergency hospital trips from prisoners smoking Black Mamba) has become common inside, where prison staff report incidents of this nature happen ‘almost daily’. At HMP Bristol there were 35 Spice related hospitalisations in one week.

Benito said: “With Spice being sold, borrowed and stolen there was an increase in violence; a disturbing amount of violence that I had never witnessed before over the smallest amounts.

“Sometimes even after just one joint I saw a prisoner knocked out with one punch and dragged into his cell, the alarm pressed, the door shut, waiting for the officers to attend.”

However, the risks associated with these drugs do not seem to act as a deterrent, for those buying it, or those selling it. This recent popularity combined with the ease of getting legal highs into prisons has led to an increase in short term prisoners intentionally getting arrested and reinstated in prison, just to sell legal highs.

For some, like Alan*, an ex prisoner who served time at HMP Swaleside, the simple method of not attending a parole meeting was enough to be sent back to prison for a short period of time. Knowing the recall date, and making a few quick phone calls whilst outside, was a perfect way to take an ounce of Spice back into prison, sell it on for a £900 profit and be out again in a fortnight. By the time the drug made its impact on the prisoners, Alan had been released again.

“It’s not something I’m proud of at all,” Alan said, “and now that I’m out I’m staying out, but I was in desperate need of money and it’s probably the ultimate way of making it quickly in prison.

“Of course there is a chance you will get caught with it, but Spice doesn’t smell of much and there are a few methods of getting it in that we consider pretty much foolproof. If it all goes wrong, you end up back where you started for a slightly longer time. There’s much riskier business going on in prisons than taking legal highs in.”

This rise also means it’s hard to find consistent harm reduction or treatment methods. Each chemical compound is slightly different, so finding the root cause for any adverse effects is nearly impossible. The Novel Psychoactive Treatment Uk Network (NEPTUNE) said: “Paramedics work blind, so they have to make a choice between treating or not treating – both of which could result in potentially worsening the patient’s condition.

“Paramedics are forced to resort to ‘supportive’ care – like addressing symptoms to improve patient comfort (by administering tranquillisers or antipsychotics), rather than addressing the actual cause of the problem. This approach, although pragmatic, is sub-optimal and often insufficient, and in severe cases can prove fatal.”

It’s clear the war on drugs, both inside and outside the prison environment, isn’t working. Drug related deaths are on the rise and the current strategy of punishing those taking unknown substances rather than focusing on rehabilitation and deterrence is not achieving anything productive. A survey conducted by User Voice found 33 per cent of prisoners self-identified as having used spice within the last month, and two thirds had already used illicit substances prior to entering prison. More than half have a drug or alcohol dependency.

Alan said the dangers associated with Spice and other legal highs did not tend to bother him: “When you’re locked up for hours all day, even the thought of something bad happening is a bit of variety. A guy I knew had a bit of a drug problem before he came in, and of course the first thing he was offered [in prison] was Spice. He’d never done it before but the stuff’s addictive as hell and he was soon hooked.

“Spice is a horrible drug but in prison, you don’t think about those consequences. What’s the worst that could happen? You’re already locked up, it can really only get better from here.”

So what is the answer?

Andrew Selous MP, who until July last year was Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, said: “The issue of psychoactive substances like Spice and Black Mamba is a huge issue in our prisons.

“Prisoners often use drugs to help them cope with their sentences, and as for the drug trade generally,” he continued, “a great deal of money can be made by those supplying these drugs. I know the department is currently developing a test that will be able to detect psychoactive substances and that this is world-leading technology.”

VolteFace, a drug policy innovation hub, recently published High Stakes, a report which looks more thoroughly into the changes needed to reduce legal high usage in prisons. It recommends a complete change of focus, away from detection and concentrating instead on deterrence. While the current methods of restricting drugs getting into prison focus on sniffer dogs, enhanced checking and the threat of a prison sentence, VolteFace emphasises the importance of the prisoner himself. Whilst the demand exists, a supply will find its way in one way or another, so the primary focus should be on reducing the demand, rather than hindering the supply.

It suggests scrapping the notion of ‘zero tolerance’, which, in a place where crime is everywhere, is a pointless concept. Incentives for those who stop using drugs voluntarily, and more training to ensure that less people find a need to try them in prison for the first time. The implementation of a busy routine – where prisoners are given more focus, more education and more drive, rather than sitting around in their cells. When surveyed, around 75 per cent of those who have tried Spice cited boredom as the main reason.

Alan said: “You spend most of your day sitting around doing fuck all. So if someone offers you something to pass the time after hours of staring at the ceiling, what are you going to do? Turn it down? I don’t think so. I’m a dad and I’ve always told my kid to stay well away from drugs, but something changes your perspective in prison, and that’s what we need to target.”

The general consensus seems to be that our current situation is not working. The Ministry of Justice needs to focus on the problem at hand – finding meaningful work or training for prisoners so they don’t spend as much time in cells, rather than wasting time and money creating more intense, more invasive search methods. If prisoners want to get drugs inside, they will – one way or another – so we should focus on getting rid of the need, rather than spending valuable resources dealing with the findings. For the mean time, this is really only an extended game of hide and seek, and one that the Ministry Of Justice will never win.

*Names and some identifying features have been changed to protect anonymity. 

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