Monday, March 9, 2015

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Grayling Talks Tough on Pills and Puff

Alex Cavendish writes on the drug culture in British prisons. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.


I have written before on this blog about the problems posed by so-called ‘legal highs’ in our prisons. Since around 2012 these substances – often marketed as ‘herbal incenses’ on the high street – have become the drugs of choice for many cons. You can find more about the impact that these ‘highs’ can have in my previous post: Mamba... a Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing

Extremely nasty
Presumably spurred on by recent media coverage of the problem and references to the issue in a number of reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Secretary of State for ‘Justice’, Chris Grayling, has now decided to get tough by cracking down on the use of ‘legal highs’ in the run up to the general election in May. Earlier this week he announced plans to introduce drugs testing to identify and punish users.

Of course, this knee-jerk initiative is likely to be no more than the usual puff of hot air from ‘Calamity Chris’. Prison authorities have been promising Mandatory Drugs Tests (MDTs) that are capable of detecting legal highs for the last two years. So far nothing has materialised. This is principally because of the difficulties involved in testing for substances where the chemical composition changes very regularly. The costs are also likely to prove prohibitive and Mr Grayling isn’t known for putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to prisons.

Both from my own experience as a former prisoner, as well as on anecdotal evidence from other inmates, prisons are full of pretty much every type of contraband, ranging from explicit porn DVDs to drugs (hard, soft and legal), mobile phones, SIM cards and alcohol. In closed prisons (Cats-A, B and C), this volume of smuggled items could only be possible with the active involvement of corrupt members of staff (uniformed or civilian), few of whom are ever caught or prosecuted.

Wraps that didn't make it through
According to official Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures for the financial year 2013-2014, a total of 25 prison staff have either been sacked or prosecuted after getting caught while trafficking contraband of various kinds into prisons. Although this figure is equal to the combined number of staff apprehended in the two previous financial years, as almost anyone who knows anything about prisons will confirm, this is only the tip of a much bigger iceberg of corruption.

When I was in a Cat-D (open prison) I actually served time with two ex-screws who had been caught and were prosecuted, but there are many others who get away with it or who take early retirement or resign on the grounds of ill health if they are found in possession of mobile phones, SIM cards or drugs (legal or illegal) inside a prison. Over-stretched security staff are finding it increasingly difficult to keep tabs on both prisoners and suspect colleagues.

Visitors who bring in tiny wraps of drugs to pass over to inmates during visiting sessions are usually being pressured or blackmailed by desperate prisoners who are deeply in debt to the drugs barons due to their habits. In the worst case scenarios criminal associates of the dealers target family members of prisoners in their own homes and threaten dire retribution against them or their loved one inside unless they act as ‘mules’.

Hands on the table, lad...
In reality, the small quantities of drugs that do get through to prisoners from visitors during visits could never meet the growing demand on the wings. Moreover, the risks – including possible imprisonment of family members, often vulnerable women – is not proportionate to the value of these tiny wraps. This end of the trade is all about desperate efforts to pay off debts to wing drugs barons. As usual, the real money is being made elsewhere.

Open prisons are another story. Prisoners who have Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) go into the local town or else go home and bring in various items - particularly herbal highs, as well as other goodies that aren’t available on the canteen sheet. Some do get caught and nicked by Reception screws, but an awful lot gets through the gate and is then used or sold on. 

I had six home leaves from a Cat-D and my washbag was never, ever checked when I reported back, nor was I beyond a very light pat down, if that. Personally, I never ‘smuggled’ anything more naughty than a few extra razor blades or the occasional tube of decent toothpaste, but many others did very well from trafficking Black Mamba, Spice, M-Cat (mephedrone) and other synthetic drugs, some of which – like Spice and M-Cat – have now been made illegal, although others have taken their place under different brand names and sometimes with different chemical compositions.

M-Cat... a bit like cocaine
The issue of legal highs in prisons is problematic, mainly because it can only be dealt with internally by a charge of unauthorised possession of an item, since the substance itself is often not illegal to possess or use. In fact, a woman who smuggled a legal high into a prison recently had her conviction quashed by the court on the grounds that she hadn’t actually committed a criminal offence known in law.

Following an internal adjudication for possession of unauthorised items (or failing a drugs test for illegal drugs) a governor can impose ‘losses’ (of privileges, canteen access, gym and prison wages) for a set time, or it can end up with time down the Block (segregation unit). Most proven adjudications will also lead to a demotion in the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, often from Enhanced to Standard, or even down onto Basic level straight away if the offence is serious.

Being caught with illegal drugs, however, is entirely another story because that can end up back in court with the prospect of extra time on a sentence, especially if there is a suspicion of any dealing to other cons. Prison security usually puts intense pressure on suspected dealers to give up both their suppliers and their customers when hard drugs are involved.

No MDTs for legal highs
If I’m honest, I would like to see drug-free prison wings. I’ve seen at first-hand the serious problems created in our prisons by both legal and illegal substances, as well as the bullying, violence, debt and despair the trade can generate. However, I’m not at all convinced that we will really see any positive change as a result of Mr Grayling’s belated electioneering. He usually talks big, but acts small, especially when it comes to anything that might involve additional budgetary expenditure on prisons.

What does concern me far more is giving Mr Grayling – arguably the most incompetent minister in the present government – executive powers over what prescription medications are permitted in prisons. In my view, medication should be prescribed purely on the basis of identified clinical need by qualified medical personnel, not limited or prohibited by the ideological diktat of utterly unqualified politicians.

Of course, there has been a problem with misdirection of prescribed medication inside our prisons for many years. Various medicines – especially strong painkillers or sedatives – are sold on or bullied out of older, weaker or more vulnerable inmates. However, the answer would be to tighten up the way in which medication is dispensed at healthcare hatches and to step up supervision by frontline staff to ensure medicines are actually taken by the intended patient. Weaker and older prisoners could also be made less of a target for the bullies and drug dealers by not allowing them to keep quantities of certain types of medicines in their possession in their cells.  

Rising number of elderly inmates
What I fear will now happen due to Mr Grayling’s political panic is that prisoners – many of them elderly, in poor health or living with mental illnesses – will be at risk of being routinely denied some types of prescribed medications. This has already been the practice in many prisons where medically prescribed drugs such as strong painkillers (particularly opioids) are being withheld not on clinical grounds, but on the basis of security concerns.

In theory, prison healthcare departments are supposed to deliver the same quality of NHS treatment to everyone, regardless of status. However, we are now in danger of treating prisoners with serious illnesses or agonising medical conditions as ‘less than human’ when compared to their counterparts back in the community.

Where severe pain cannot be managed effectively, some prisoners may opt for suicide as their only viable alternative to unbearable suffering. Given that suicide rates in our prisons are already rocketing upwards, this policy seems to carry the hallmark of the man who callously described recent self-inflicted deaths in custody as a statistical “blip”: Mr Grayling himself.

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