The launch of the ‘Decency, safety, security’ strategy for prisons was greeted with mixed reactions by the Drugs, Alcohol, and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group. DDN reports.
The new prisons strategy promised a ‘back to basics’ crackdown on drugs and mobile phones, while also intending to ‘keep prisoners busy’ by tasking them with cleaning up yards and picking up rubbish, explained prison minister Rory Stewart. It would be piloted across ten prisons, and rolled out across the rest of the prison estate if successful.
Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, praised the strategy’s intentions but questioned if there would be the resources to back it up. He mentioned the importance of stopping drugs ‘at the wall and the gate’ but said there were not enough officers to do this. ‘There is lots of legislation, but not enough people to enforce it’, he said.
Prison officers had been calling for mobile phone blocking since 2007, he said, and while the technology was available it wasn’t being used, which he claimed was down to cost. Tools available to prison officers to tackle drug use such as mandatory drug testing (MDT) and random cell searches had unintended consequences, and could lead to changes in drug using behaviour and increased bullying, as inmates were intimidated into holding drugs for dealers.
‘All we are doing is warehousing prisoners, then breathing a sigh of relief if we get them out alive,’ said Simpson. ‘As a prison officer you see the misery caused by drug use’, he added, and emphasised the need for an integrated approach that looked at the reasons people use drugs and associated psychosocial issues. But doing this ‘needs proper resourcing’.
This theme was echoed by Majella Pearce, deputy head of healthcare for HM Inspectorate of Prisons. She highlighted that ‘substance misuse doesn’t happen in isolation’; that very good substance misuse services in prison were not enough, and that there was an urgent need for wraparound services.
Of 39 prisons that had been inspected, only a third met the required standard, 28 per cent of prisoners had reported a problem with drugs and 14 per cent with alcohol. Changing drug use within prisons was a big issue, with diverted medication and NPS being the key concerns. The use of drug testing was driving this as prisoners moved away from cannabis to drugs that leave the system quicker and are harder to detect.
Dedicated drug recovery wings were not the only answer and varied in their effectiveness – but when done well could be very effective, she said. This was especially the case when there was integrated mental health care and drug treatment: prisoners were more likely to engage as they perceived less stigma around mental health issues.
Louise Scherdel, project manager at Addaction, told the group about Addaction’s approach to working in jails in Lincolnshire. On reception, every prisoner was offered a chemical assessment, then seen again the next morning and offered specific harm reduction advice relating to the drugs most commonly reported in the prison. Scherdel said that NPS users were less likely to engage than traditional drug users, but initiatives using music and art therapy had been shown to be effective. While lack of resources meant that they were currently unable to implement a full recovery wing – but ran a programme on a landing – anecdotal evidence pointed to an 89 per cent completion rate.
The charity worked with prisoners on release with its ‘through the gateway’ programme, linking prisoners with treatment services in the area and family support teams, and providing harm reduction services such as take-home naloxone on release.
‘There is a focus on enforcement and reducing supply,’ commented Alex Boyt, as discussion opened up to the group. ‘But a lot of drug use is linked to depression – if you are banged up 23 hours a day and under threat of violence from other prisoners, you are more likely to self-medicate. It creates a vicious downward spiral.’