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. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder: not quite general depression but more than feeling the winter blues

It’s true that some people are more active in the summer and less so in the colder months for no reason, but for between 10 and 20 per cent of people there could be a medical cause for this lethargy. If you start to find yourself getting more tired in the winter months, craving comfort food and/or wanting to sleep more, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Very ironically shortened to SAD, it’s a disorder along the same spectrum as depression but only affects people towards the time of year when there’s less natural light around us. SAD is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, because without knowing the scientific causes behind the disorder, the sufferer can wrongly assume they’re just having a bad few days.

It can be very easy to spot the signs of SAD. Similarly to general depressive illnesses, it can be hereditary and this can work to your advantage when it comes to a diagnosis. Doctors are usually hesitant to diagnose straight away, as it is difficult to differentiate between SAD and general depression whilst the winter months are here. Pointing out that it runs in your family can be a huge step towards getting professional help faster, if it’s necessary. Generally, doctors will try to wait for three reoccurring winter periods before giving an official diagnosis of SAD, but this doesn’t mean to say you can’t find solutions in the mean time.

Amelia Rowland, 20, found that her doctor refused to listen to her complaints: “I didn’t realise that SAD was an actual disorder at first.

“I told my doctor my symptoms and he only said that it could be diagnosed after a few reoccurring years.

“It left me feeling so helpless and wondering where these feelings had suddenly come from out of the blue.”

SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight. When late Autumn hits and the clocks go back, it can be easy to throw away tiredness as a result of changing pace, rather than a disorder. If you feel that things aren’t improving after a few weeks though, it could very possibly be that you’re suffering from SAD. Although the official cause is unknown, it’s widely circulated that SAD is caused by a combination of fluctuating or lowered serotonin and melatonin levels, and an upset circadian rhythm.

There are a few easy ways to combat the symptoms of SAD. For the majority of us, spending the winter months in a hot, sunny country isn’t an option, and it’s difficult to rely on British sunshine to get you through the months. The Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests making an effort to spend some time outside each day, as this can be a good way to combat the feelings associated with SAD and also be a good change of scenery for when you’re feeling low. Whether this is a stroll on your lunch break or taking the dogs for a longer walk in the mornings, the fresh air combined with the natural light will benefit you despite the winter nights.

However, British weather isn’t especially known for its bright days and the Autumn and Winter months are even worse. Another solution is to invest in a light therapy box. Varying from the size of an iPad to a small tv, these screens emit a 10,000 lux light which is on the same level in terms of power as natural light. They can be purchased online on Amazon or Ebay from £40 upwards and just need to be plugged in next to you for around an hour and a half a day. Putting the light box next to you when you’re sat at a desk or watching tv is an effortless way to increase your natural light exposure and results are typically seen in under two weeks.

SADA, The UK’s only non-commercial support organisation for SAD, recommends light boxes for the fastest course of treatment, although users should be wary and should ‘try before you buy’ if possible. Their website is focused around treatments for sufferers and can also work as a support network for friends and family.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can also be treated with psychotherapy and medication, although these aren’t as commonly used. People who suffer from depression throughout the year may find their symptoms worsen as the days get shorter and these methods are more likely to be given for this type of sufferer.

Statistics show that around one in 15 people will suffer from a mild form of SAD in their lifetime. Women are more frequently sufferers than men, and cases are primarily seen in the northern and southern hemispheres, outside 30 degrees of the Equator where longer days are the norm. It could be more than a coincidence that only two of SADA’s primary volunteers (all of whom suffer from SAD) are male.

So what is the best outcome? Without moving abroad for half the year it can seem difficult to find a positive outcome, especially with the inevitable year after year symptoms. However, with the right tools and a good support network, SAD can easily be dealt with, enabling you to live a happy life whatever the time of year.


Endometriosis is more than just having a low pain threshold

(Reposted on Babe)

Salt and vinegar crisps are not my breakfast of choice. However, they are the only thing I have in the house that doesn’t require some kind of cooking or heating up or preparation, and also one of the few things that I don’t feel sick at the thought of eating at 9am.

Combined with my handful of crisps are seven pills. They have to be taken straight away after the crisps, but with lots of water. The alternative, as I have learned over the last two years, is to take them before the food and consequently spend the next 45 minutes throwing up. Or, if I’m lucky, passed out on the bathroom floor. If I’m very, very lucky, they will do their job within an hour and I will spend the next eight to 12 hours in a state of drowsiness from the comforts of my bed.

Endometriosis, as you may have learned by now, is no laughing matter. While some women get their period, drop an iborprofen or two and continue their day, for one in 10 of us this is not even a consideration.

Endometriosis has given me an unreasonably large medicine cabinet and an undoubtable ability to know timings, interactions and side effects of different drugs. It has meant I’m an excellent person to go to when you’re feeling rough, because I will almost certainly have a few options of pain relief in my purse. A small interest in neuroscience may have helped, sure, but how many other 20 year old journalism students can confidently talk about the difference between opioids and NSAIDS, how long they take (on average) to start working and what they actually consist of?

It’s knowing exactly how much I have to eat with medication and approximately how long I have to get myself home and into bed before it feels like I’ve been shot in the pelvis (20 minutes). It’s being able to think up countless reasons on the spot as for why half an hour ago I was up for going out and now suddenly I’m confined to my bed. It’s planning nights out, interviews and events meticulously around when I think my period is due. And then, when it is late for no reason and falls on said event anyway, it’s usually a case of dropping out and resigning myself to my bed, again.

I have scoured the internet for the past three years looking for answers, solutions, and if nothing else, sympathy. When, out of the blue, it first hit me when I was 17, my mum thought I had food poisoning and we spent the night on the phone to NHS Direct. When after that it became a regular, monthly thing, I resorted to stealing codeine from the family medicine box secretly and ever so slightly overdosing in a desperate attempt to knock myself out and wake up feeling better.

Surely though, if it’s so debilitating that even codeine can’t rid the pain, shouldn’t there be an answer?

Endometriosis is caused by the inner lining of the uterus growing outside the uterus, in places it shouldn’t. Towards the end of the cycle, that lining thickens and sheds. For women with endometriosis, there is nowhere for it to shed: because it’s growing in the wrong place. As a result, the body tries to fight this growth and women suffer in what’s been regularly described as contractions similar to labour pains.

The fun part? There is no known cause and no known solution. The pain can, supposedly, be managed, through birth control or other pills to stop the periods completely, or a laparoscopy to stick a camera through your belly button and laser out any wrongly placed lining. I’ve tried the former for two years now, and will be trying the latter next month. Some women report on having up to seven laparoscopies without success, as well as hysterectomies and eventually removing their ovaries and/or uteruses out of pure desperation. After reading this, I’m trying not to get my hopes up for relief too much.

I would love to write more about how I’ve spent weeks worrying about what happens if I get my period on the day of an exam, or at work. If I have an important interview, and I’m writhing around, hot water bottle stuck to my stomach and ever so slightly fucked with dilated pupils and slurred speech from codeine. I’ve had this for nearly three years now, and in those 36 months I’ve had two periods which haven’t left me stuck in bed for a day or two. It’s got to the point where if I have a ‘good’ month (read: I take my meds and don’t throw up for the first few hours) I’m elated to the point of texting my mum, who is equally overjoyed.

I say this lightly, and with more than a hint of irony, but I am one of the lucky women who suffers for 24-48 hours a month with this, rather than days or weeks on end. It’s one thing having to cancel a day’s plans but another completely for women who have to reschedule entire weeks.

Let’s not even get started on the amount of women who’re simply disregarded as having ‘just’ painful periods in the workplace, and who either have to suffer through for hours on end, or take unpaid leave. It’s genuinely one of my biggest fears post university, and don’t forget the embarrassment that comes from having to admit to your new (most likely male) boss that your period pains make you throw up once a month, like clockwork.

There are an estimated 1.5 million women in the UK alone who are thought to suffer with endometriosis, and with infertility rates around 30-50% for sufferers it’s ridiculous that not more is being done to help. It’s one thing telling people you’ve got period pains and them rolling their eyes and telling you to get over it, suck it up and move on because you’re female and it happens to all of us and you probably just have a low pain threshold and another entirely when you’re dropping codeine every few hours just to stop from throwing up with pain.