High Stakes: An Inquiry into the Drugs Crisis in English Prisons


George McBride examines the implications of the radical shift in prison drug markets & proposes pragmatic solutions to reduce drug-related harms & improve prison safety & security. High Stakes was produced for Volteface think tank.


Executive Summary

Prisons are in crisis with record levels of suicides, violence and self-harm. Traditional drugs have been replaced by a family of drugs called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, generically referred to as ‘black mamba’ or ‘spice.’ The government has failed to recognise the important policy implications of these new drugs, and the lack of intelligent drug policy in the new white paper risks undermining the entirety of the proposed prison reforms.

This report is the first of its kind bringing together experts in drug and prison policy to examine the implications of the radical shift in prison drug markets and propose pragmatic solutions to reduce drug-related harms and improve prison safety and security.

The report reviews the rise to near ubiquity of spice in men’s prisons in England. These diverse and multitudinous substances have risen to prominence globally in response to international prohibition of popular illicit substances, in particular cannabis. These new substances have relatively unknown risk profiles and many induce paranoia, behavioural disturbances, violence, seizures and convulsions. They are particularly popular in prisons due to their low cost, difficulty to detect, and “bird [prison sentence] killing” effects.

Too little is being done to fight drug demand within prisons. Prisoners are often left unoccupied in their cells for 23 hours a day. Many prisoners are developing drug problems during their incarceration. Overall 8% of men in prison in England and Wales report developing a drug problem since they have been in prison. In prisons with the worst regimes this is as high as 14-16%. This is increasing drug use and the frequency of dangerous incidents, which are a substantial drain on prison staff resources. This feeds a vicious cycle, further draining resources, and is leaving prisoners increasingly unoccupied and under supervised. As staff capacity is reduced this further decreases the ability of prisons to perform essential functions in disrupting the supply of drugs into prisons leaving criminal organisations able to push drugs with impunity.

The supply reduction methods proposed in the White Paper are expensive distractions from the real work needed to disrupt criminal supply chains. Proposed extensions to the mandatory drug testing regime will be impracticable with the available resources, only identify a limited range of the drugs in circulation, and fail to assist in identifying those supplying drugs. New sniffer dogs will quickly become obsolete due to the rate of chemical innovation of new substances.

We are currently monitoring drug use in prisons through mandatory drug testing and records of seizures. These methods give very little assistance in terms of understanding who is supplying drugs, who is using drugs, what drugs are in circulation, how drugs are getting into prisons, or the level and nature of harm associated with drug use in a given prison.

Read the full report here.