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The drug infestation in our prisons

4 May 2011

9:11 PM

4 May 2011

9:11 PM

Despite the focus on the government’s controversial plans to reduce the prison
population, the troubled Prison Service continues to cause headaches for Ministers in another way — by failing to get on top of the security problems plaguing the estate In the 1990s, when
Michael Howard was in Ken Clarke’s position, the concern of ministers was escaping inmates. The Prison Service has made huge strides on this, despite ongoing issues with the open prison
estate and day-release of some inmates. But now the ever-present problem is lax internal security and especially drug-infestation. The jailing this week, for two years, of a prison officer based at
Feltham Young Offenders Institution is just one example of the problem.

As Channel 4 News reports tonight, we obtained — through a Freedom of Information request — an internal assessment of the prison drug problem which
casts new light on the issue. The document admits that:

“Research consistently indicates that the most common types of staff corruption are the trafficking of drugs and mobile phones and that the scale of the threat is
considerable…

…Reducing prison drug supply is a constant battle. As one route is closed, it does not take long for another to open.”

This document confirms what our own research uncovered last year, although at the time the Ministry dismissed our findings. The prison drug market is
huge, estimated to be worth up to £100m, which is driving a lot of the supply:

“There is growing evidence of carefully organised attempts to traffic drugs into prisons, with great efforts made by criminals to overcome improved security measures in order to exploit
the potential profits to be made in doing so.”

The nature of the drugs being smuggled also explains the difficulty of stemming supply routes when such small quantities can maintain so many addicted prisoners. The document reveals
that:

“[T]hree tablespoons’ worth of heroin (3 ounces/84 grams) — a quantity that could easily be concealed in a prisoner or visitor’s body cavities — equates to
around 1000 doses: this amount is sufficient to sustain the illegal drugs trade in a prison for around a month”

There are many reasons why illegal drugs get into prisons, and a lot relies on police detection of criminal activity. However, the reality that this document accepts is more disturbing.
The sheer size and impact of the problem can only be explained by entry routes predominately opened and maintained by corrupt prison staff. Contraband lobbed over prison walls is not driving this. As
the document states:

“The unpalatable but inevitable conclusion is that corrupt staff constitutes a significant supply route for drugs into prisons.”

How to address staff corruption is a key issue, and it is separate from how regimes might be reordered to limit the possibility of drugs getting through, including more screening of
staff and more closed visits — with inmate and visitor divided by screens — which are common features of prisons in the United States. Such measures are unpopular with staff and offend
those concerned about rehabilitation and family contact, but security has to take priority.

The Ministry of Justice is committed to “drug-free wings” — a concept the public find baffling, and hardly a sign of real ambition. Surely all prisons should be free of drugs?
Reassuringly, in response to the disclosure, the new head of the Prison Service, Michael Spurr, was not defensive and resolved to give the issue the attention it deserves: “I am absolutely
clear there are corrupt staff; I am absolutely clear we have to tackle that and not pretend it doesn’t exist.”

We need to learn from other countries that have tackled this problem because, if we don’t, there is no hope of creating the more purposeful prison service that will deliver the Coalition
Government’s laudable rehabilitation drive. You cannot have drug-free, employable, ex-prisoners while you have drug infested prisons.

Blair Gibbs is the Head of Crime & Justice at the think-tank Policy Exchange


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