8 December 2016

The Government’s naive approach to prison reform

By Paul Birch

“Prisons have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”, was the warning given by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke in his annual report on the state of the country’s jails earlier this year.

Total assaults have risen 64 per cent since 2012 and inmate suicides are now averaging one every three days. Riots are filmed on the smartphones prisons are, illegally, awash with. Inmates are being killed, others are escaping and prison officers keep on walking out over concerns for their safety.

At the heart of this crisis, according to Volteface, a policy innovation hub, is the drugs epidemic, fuelling and feeding into the violence and squalor which characterise our prisons.

Their report, High Stakes: An Inquiry into the Drugs Crisis in British Prisons, argues that attempts at reform are hampered by the Government’s flawed understanding of how the prison drugs market operates.

The author of the report, George McBride, points out it is unlikely that the supply of drugs into local prisons will ever be cut off completely. Internal concealment of drugs by both prisoners and visitors make it near impossible to accurately monitor, and these risks must be balanced with the importance of maintaining open contact visits for all prisoners.

But, he continues, this realism should not be confused with pessimism. There is much that can be done to gain ground in the reduction of drug supply and demand in prison.

It is a challenge, though, particularly given the huge rise in the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS), particularly Spice, by inmates.

More than one in three prisoners have reported using these drugs in the last month. Spice is highly addictive, long lasting and typically generates bizarre and aggressive behaviour in its consumers.

The Government’s approach so far has been to dedicate limited resources on an attempt to eradicate the supply of drugs into prisons – but this is an unlikely goal.

Demand for drugs has flourished and will continue to grow as conditions in the prison environment have deteriorated. Unfortunately, the violence that results from the astronomical debts incurred within the prisons makes conditions worse.

The Prison Service’s response, meanwhile, is currently limited to carrying out mandatory drugs testing on prisoners, using scanners and sniffer dogs, securing prison perimeter fences from drones flying in packages and punishing prisoners caught using.

Just this week, Justice Secretary Liz Truss told the House of Commons that London’s Pentonville prison is using patrol dogs to bark in an effort to deter drones.

None of these methods rigorously confronts the realities of how the drugs market in prisons operates.

Widespread demand creates huge incentive to supply throughout the prison complex. The rate at which the chemical compounds within different types of NPS are being adapted in order to avoid detection methods developed to tackle them means the Prison Service will always be one step behind with its focus on testing.

Additionally, Buzzfeed News reported this week how the corruption of a minority of prison staff is flooding our jails with drugs. A Freedom of Information request showed that the number of staff expelled or punished for corruption has nearly doubled in the last five years.

Volteface’s report notes: “If we are to seriously tackle prison security, reoffending rates, costs and protect wider society from crime, we need to get serious and practical when discussing drug policy in prisons.”

It goes on to argue that the Government must be willing to understand why prisoners want to use drugs, who exactly is supplying them and focus on reducing the risk of harm associated with them, rather than continuing with the zero tolerance approach.

This means an overhaul of how drug use and supply are monitored, an increase in prison staff, and an increased supply of meaningful work for prisoners to stop them turning to Spice.

In the Government’s Prison Reform and Safety white paper, Liz Truss said it was providing a “blueprint for the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation”.

She wrote:

“We will never be able to address the issue of re-offending if we do not address the current level of violence and safety in our prisons. For too long society has failed to look over those high walls and the result has been a catastrophic burden on the taxpayer and far too many lives shattered by crimes. This is a challenge that will take time and determination to deliver but society can no longer afford to ignore what goes on behind those high walls.”

Without being willing to embrace an innovative, new approach to tackling drugs and the harm caused by the drugs market in prisons, the much-needed reform the Government is striving for will amount to very little.

Paul Birch is the founder of Volteface.