Prisons ‘playing catch-up to psychoactive drug use’ says minister

This article was taken from:

By Frances Perraudin at the guardian news

Rory Stewart says drugs such as spice are fuelling endemic rise in prison violence

The prisons system was unprepared for the arrival of new psychoactive drugs like spice and has been playing “catch-up” ever since, the prisons minister Rory Stewart has said.

Speaking half a year after vowing to resign if violence at 10 of the worst prisons did not fall, he said governors had told him significant progress had been made, though official data will not be available until April.

The £10m “10 prisons project” has seen, among other measures, an increase in the number of sniffer dogs, the installation of x-ray body scanners so people can be checked for drugs concealed in their bodies, and scanners installed that can detect invisible traces of drugs.

Spice, the most widely used psychoactive substance, is a liquid that can be sprayed on paper, which is then ripped up and added to a joint. It has been smuggled into prisons sprayed on children’s drawings and letters.

The government has said one of the main factors fuelling the violence in prisons was drug use. Asked on Thursday why the use of drugs in prison had escalated, Stewart said: “The prison estate, which had had problems with drugs in the early 90s, basically thought it had cracked that problem by the early 2000s, and it had – it had cracked the problem with heroin and cocaine and largely with cannabis.

“But from around 2012 it saw a sudden spike in these new type of drugs, such as spice, and it caught it off balance. Our success against heroin and cocaine meant that we did not have procedures set up to deal with people impregnating mail with spice, for example.”

He said that, unlike other drugs previously used, new psychoactive substances provoked violent and aggressive behaviour. “Heroin addiction is terrible,” said Stewart. “But heroin addiction doesn’t lead prisoners to suddenly assault prison officers.

“So I think we have been playing catch-up. We’ve been playing catch-up with the drugs and we’ve been playing catch-up with the technology.”

Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice showed a record number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the year to September, increasing 18% year on year to 24,138. There were 10,085 assaults on staff in the period, up 29%. Deaths in prison also jumped 10% to 325.

Stewart said: “You’ve just got to make it much more difficult to get drugs into prison. When I began this job, occasionally people in the NGO community would say to me, there’s no point doing this because people will always find another way of getting drugs into prisons. I don’t agree. There are basically only two ways of getting drugs into prison. Walk it through the gate or get it over the fence.”

As part of the 10 Prisons Project, a pilot which will be further rolled out if it is deemed a success at the end of the year, Stewart announced the creation of standards coaching teams – groups of prison officers who will work on rotation to support new recruits and ensure good practice is delivered consistently across the jails.

The 10 prisons in the project are HMP Hull, Humber, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, Isis and Wormwood Scrubs. Stewart has agreed the prisons would need to see a decline in assaults of around 10% to 25% in order for him to stay in his job.

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