Drugs behind ‘huge increase’ in prison violence

chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke.
Peter Clarke: Drugs are behind much of the violence

A ‘huge increase’ in violence across the prison estate has taken place in the last five years, according to the latest annual report from the chief inspector of prisons. As well as coinciding with substantial reductions in staff numbers, the ‘ready availability of drugs in too many of our prisons sits behind much of the violence’, says chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke. 

‘In our surveys of prisoners, we are regularly told how easy it is to get hold of illicit drugs in prisons, and of the shockingly high numbers who acquire a drug habit while they are detained,’ says Clarke. Thirteen per cent of adult male prisoners surveyed reported that they had developed a problem with illicit drugs since arriving in prison, with 11 per cent reporting that they had developed a problem misusing medication that had not been prescribed to them. 

The document reveals ‘some of the worst prison conditions ever seen’, with ‘violence, drugs, suicide and self-harm, squalor and poor access to education’ prominent themes. The conditions had no place in the prison system of ‘an advanced nation in the 21st century’, stated Clarke, with the report also detailing the ‘disappointing failure’ of many prisons to act on the inspectorate’s previous recommendations.


Much of the violence in the prison estate is driven by ‘widespread use of illicit substances and associated debt, bullying and self-harm’, says the report.

Although suicide rates had fallen, levels remained high, while levels of self-harm had increased by 11 per cent between 2016 and 2017 to 44,651 incidents, with mental health difficulties, drug use and debt again among the contributory factors.

The Howard League for Penal Reform’s director of campaigns, Andrew Neilson, said the ‘excoriating’ report was ‘yet another reminder of the scale of the chaos in overcrowded and under-resourced’ jails that were ‘failing everyone’.

‘No public service in England and Wales has deteriorated as rapidly and as profoundly in recent years as the prison system,’ he said. ‘The chief inspector’s warnings must not be allowed to fall on deaf ears, and what matters now is how the government responds.’

HM chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales annual report 2017–18 at www.gov.uk