Put on the spot

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.50.56Launching his new monthly Behind the stats column for DDN, Russell Webster looks at the inventive business of getting drugs into prison

I always remember John Grieve, the Metropolitan Police Commander who was a moving force behind one of the early drug strategies, passionately calling for an end to the war on drugs because: ‘A war on drugs is a war on our own young people.’

Although his argument was a moral one, he backed it up with the practical argument that it was impossible to prevent drugs being available, citing as an example the large-scale heroin problem in post-war East Berlin despite the fact that the city was surrounded by a somewhat notorious wall and four occupying armies.

It might be a cliché, but necessity has always been the mother of invention.

In 2005, I was part of a team that undertook a study into prison drug markets which found a wide range of ways of getting drugs into prison, including:

  • concealed in mail and parcels
  • thrown over the prison wall in oranges and dead pigeons
  • brought in by visitors
  • brought in by prisoners themselves, usually concealed in their anus, and
  • occasionally, allegedly, smuggled in by corrupt prison staff.

There is currently widespread concern about the increased availability of legal highs – especially synthetic cannabinoids – in most prisons, revealed by a series of prison inspection reports and a briefing by the prison drug treatment provider, RAPt. Admission to both prison health care and local accident and emergency departments, assaults on fellow prisoners and staff and self-harm are all common consequences.

This made me wonder whether prison drug smuggling approaches have evolved over the last decade.

It appears they have. A recent Freedom of Information request by the Press Association revealed that there were 33 recorded incidents of drones being discovered in English and Welsh prisons in 2015 (up from two in 2014).

Drones are now very cheap and very low risk for the operator and if you’re wondering how prisoners manage to get to the ‘payload’ before prison staff, prison inspectors have also pointed out how the easy access to illicit mobile phones makes planning deliveries a relatively straightforward matter.

Adherents of the war on drugs are coming up with their own responses – more searches, new machinery to screen incoming post and people, even training eagles to intercept drones (yes, really).

I know what John Grieve would say, though. He would say we should focus on providing advice, information and treatment, and encourage drug-using prisoners to look for a better life on release.

Further reading: HMIP (2015) Changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons and service responses; RAPt (2015) Tackling the issue of new psychoactive substances in prisons; Penfold, Turnbull & Webster (2005) Tackling prison drug markets: an exploratory qualitative study. Home Office online report 39/05.

Russell Webster is a consultant and researcher specialising in alcohol, drugs, crime and payment by results and runs a blog which aims to keep readers up to date on these issues at www.russellwebster.com