Sunday, November 16, 2014

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Drugs, Prisons and Public Policy

Alex Cavendish with a piece on the impact of drugs on the lives of prisoners.  The piece featured on his blog Prison UK: An Insider's View on 20 October 2014. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation.

Well, I’m back to blogging after a week travelling. Thanks to everyone who continued to post comments and tweets. I’ll try to catch up with my replies.

 
As regular visitors will know, I have posted before on the issue of drugs and their negative impact in prisons and on prisoners. However, recent research reports for the Home Office have approached the issue from an evidence-based perspective (rather than the usual emotive hogswash that often passes as drugs policy debate in Britain) and this does seem to have provoked some more serious discussion of why the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, is failing and will continue to fail. All the evidence seems to suggest that criminalising the possession of drugs just doesn’t have a significant impact when it comes to reducing drugs use.
 
Failing to keep drugs out of prisons
I suppose I should make my own position clear for the avoidance of any doubt. I have never – and I mean NEVER – taken any illegal substances in my life (even when abroad in countries where there is effective decriminalisation of personal possession). However, I have had to pick up the pieces when younger family members and close friends have got into difficulties over drugs use, including making visits to A&E departments and sitting up all night next to a bed holding a bucket. 

My personal preference would be that these substances didn’t circulate, particularly having seen the misery that they can cause users and their families (mine included). However, we live in the real world and both legal and illegal drugs exist, people use them and they cause all manner of problems. So my main interest is in how, as a society, we can better manage the problem and minimise the harms that result. I suppose you could call me a Utilitarian when it comes to drugs policies.

I believe that a major part of the challenge facing any government that seeks to legislate on this emotive issue is to tackle to so-called ‘moral’ argument against drug use. My own view is that this movement has its roots in the early 20th century and is linked to the whole temperance drive against the abuse of alcohol and other drugs – primarily laudanum (an opiate solution) that could be purchased over the counter at chemists shops for centuries. Although classified as a Class A substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), tincture of opium is still manufactured pharmaceutically in the UK and can be prescribed for medical use. The moral argument is that since drugs can cause harm, they should be strictly controlled and all non-medical use strongly discouraged by the threat of punishment.  
 
Wings: drugs are easy to find in jail
The problem is that, as with any form of prohibition, demand merely drives the manufacture and supply underground, as well as the price on the street upwards. My own moral condemnation is reserved for the cartels and their insidious networks that supply and promote this form of big business. Incredible profits are generated across the globe. 

Let’s take a quick look at the official figures. In 2013, it was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that the annual global drugs trade is worth around $435 billion, with the cocaine racket alone worth $84 billion per year. Drugs activity (production, distribution and sale) represents around 50 percent of the total income generated by all organised criminal activity globally. 

That’s why the individuals who are – understandably – most concerned to keep drugs illegal are those who make the biggest profits from the trade. It does make you wonder whether the cartels are covert donors to any of the major campaigns against decriminalisation of drugs. That is pure speculation on my part, but if you think about it, it would make perfect sense. For the major players in the drugs industry, supporting decriminalisation would be like the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.
Cooking up
There can also be no doubt that drug use is a major problem in UK prisons. If we take a look at the official statistics contained in the report issued by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in December 2012 we find that:

70 percent of offenders report drug misuse prior to going to prison
51 percent of prisoners report drug dependency
35 percent of prisoners admit injecting drugs

Moreover, a survey by the Prison Reform Trust issued in September 2012 revealed that 19 percent of prisoners who had ever used heroin reported first using it in prison. That’s a pretty grim statistic and a desperately sad reflection on our penal system.
 
The Home Affairs Committee observed: “We accept that prisons cannot be hermetically sealed and that it will never be possible to eradicate completely the availability of drugs within prisons. However, the fact that almost a quarter of prisoners surveyed found it easy to get drugs in prison is deeply disturbing. The methods of reducing supply are only effective if they are implemented as intended.” Indeed.
 
Pills: easy to smuggle in
So those are some of the figures. Now let’s take a look at the impact of drugs in our prisons. I can state from personal observation that drugs are easily available inside the nick, perhaps even more so than outside. Prices are much higher than on the street – that takes into account the higher risk factors involved – and the quality is even more suspect. God alone knows what some of these substances have been cut with in order to convert a quarter into a half ounce and so on.
 
For years, crumbled up bleach tablets – which used to be issued to prisoners to sterilise WCs and sinks in cells – were a popular cutting agent, along with talc, crushed up sugar or even prison-issue tea whitener. As anyone who knows anything about the misuse of drugs will confirm, many deaths or serious reactions to intravenous drug use arise from whatever substance the active ingredient has been cut with in order to increase its volume ahead of final sale.
 
What has it been cut with?
Cons who can source drugs and arrange for them to be smuggled into prisons can establish themselves as men of power and influence, although their positions at the top are always precarious. In my experience, it’s usually the quietest, most unassuming blokes who really control the trade. They don’t like drawing too much attention to themselves – or flaunting their ill-gotten gains. In fact, little of the money generated inside ever goes near the walls of the nick – all transactions are done outside in cash and are therefore almost untraceable.
 
All a well-connected dealer who happens to be doing his ‘bird’ (sentence) inside prison needs is access to a ready supply of contraband mobile phones or SIM cards and mules willing to get the product inside. Based on my own time in the nick, I’ve come to the conclusion that most drugs that come into the prison system are brought in by staff – uniformed or civilian – rather than via the visits hall. This also seems to be accepted by many screws who are well aware of the impact that their bent colleagues can have on the supply of drugs. That’s why prison security departments keep officers and other staff under at least as close surveillance as they do the cons in their establishments.
 
Smuggled 'joeys': drugs
Recently, we have had a spate of prison staff being sent down for involvement in the smuggling of mobiles and other illicit contraband to prisoners. Of course, this has always been a problem, but these cases highlight the routes by which the drugs trade keeps inmates supplied with gear and other substances, as well as the communications mechanism required to organise the business. Some enterprising cons even manage to run external drugs operations from their prison cells.

Essentially, mules fall into one of three categories: those who act from ‘love’ (ie they have formed an illicit relationship with a con); those who are in it for pure profit (mostly screws) and those who are being blackmailed. In addition, ordinary cons who get into debt – very easy for those who have a habit – are prime targets to be manipulated into smuggling. In these cases, their families can be put under incredible pressure to bring drugs into prisons during visits. They are sometimes caught in the act and then charged, with the prospect of being sent down themselves.
 
Pressure to get families involved
The picture is particularly bleak for those kids whose dad is inside if their mum then gets caught trying to smuggle in drugs for him. Both parents can end up serving time, while the children face the consequences outside.
 
I’m actually convinced that on occasion, these amateur mules are offered up by the real kingpins as sacrificial lambs, because when the security screws have been tipped off about an incoming consignment, it means that much larger amounts of drugs can be brought in while attention is focused elsewhere. In these cases, security looks good because its screws have intercepted a small decoy parcel of drugs, while the bosses on the wings get their product to sell in under the radar. It’s only the amateur patsy and the prisoner he or she is coming to visit that end up getting the heat.
 
The influence of drugs inside the nick can be all-pervasive, a situation that isn’t helped by chronic shortages of frontline staff. You can see lads wandering round landings stoned out of their heads or vomiting in the wing washrooms. Since so-called ‘legal’ highs are easily available inside and don’t show up in Mandatory Drug Testing (MDTs), these are particularly popular under a variety of different names. 
MDTs: encourage harder drugs
The MDT system itself also tends to encourage the use of harder drugs, such as heroin, simply because cannabis remains in the system for up to 28 days, while smack can be detectable for anything from a few hours to about two days (although in the case of very heavy users, it can still be detected up to seven days after use). As this is common knowledge among cons, there is a preference to drift towards to harder drugs as the risk of detection can be much lower. Also, as I’ve mentioned above, so-called ‘legal’ highs aren’t tested during MDTs.
 
The availability of drugs inside prisons fuels turf wars between dealers (and this can spill over on to the streets outside), as well as cycles of debt, violence and punishment beatings. The trade can easily drag in family members as they are ripe for pressure to pay off debts or to smuggle in contraband to their loved ones. The whole environment can be highly corrosive, with younger prisoners sometimes being introduced to hard drugs for the first time. When a first timer leaves the nick with a serious drug habit, then you know that our present penal policy is failing disastrously.
 
Being honest, I doubt that decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, alone, would result in lower drugs use inside prisons. Cons resort to drugs to help them cope with the stresses and pressures of prison life – including boredom and depression. However, if new legislation reduced the number of people with existing drug habits from being imprisoned, then the problem could become more manageable.
 
Methadone: the 'green lady'
A much greater focus on a drugs habit as a medical or psychological issue – rather than as a disciplinary problem – could also encourage inmates to seek treatment and support from counsellors. At present, there is little real incentive for prisoners to kick their habits. In my experience, cons who are on the methadone programme rarely get clean. They simply use their daily dose of the ‘green lady’ to manage their habits and often to supplement their misuse of other illicit drugs.
 
Where I would see a major benefit to society is by imprisoning less people who have drug habits in the first place. Decriminalisation of all drugs for personal possession and the establishment of a legalised, safe supply system via licensed pharmacies offers the prospect of reducing the illegal street trade substantially. It would also reduce the number of deaths as a result of contaminated substances or impure doses. Such a policy would focus on harm reduction, accompanied by easy-access treatment programmes for those who wished to cease using.
 
Can the Prison Service cope?
Many prisoners are serving sentences for drug-related crime, including street robbery and burglary to fund their habits. While decriminalisation might not completely eliminate these offences, I believe that by properly managing addictions, fewer people with dependencies would turn to crime as a means of paying for their habits. 

Radical as it may seem, I believe that decriminalisation offers our society the best chance of reducing crime, cutting our prison population and reducing reoffending. It’s just a pity that so many politicians – and tabloid leader writers – seem to be unable to break their own addictions to peddling faux morality and scoring cheap party political points.
 
If David Cameron really fears that decriminalisation “sends the wrong message” about drugs, then what the hell does he think of the message that the easy availability of illegal (and legal) substances in our prisons sends? My answer would be “institutional failure”.

1 comments :

Aine said...

I completely agree with a decriminalize / legalize route. It is definitely the way to go to enable a harm reduction strategy to prevail in how we approach the drugs "problem".
when we look at the the prison populace, who are there because of drug possession/small time dealing, it is largely over represented by working class people and people of colour - the realities of an unjust system are reflected in all it's institutions.

I don't even want to start on the unsuccessful and down right corrupt " war on drugs " that has seen US authorities fund and arm cartels in Mexico and most recently saw a mayor and town police had over students to drug gangs to be slaughtered ...