Sunday, 2 November 2014

Drugs, Prisons and Public Policy

Well, I’m back to blogging after a week travelling. Thanks to everyone who continued to post comments and tweets. I’ll try to catch up with my replies.

As regular visitors will know, I have posted before on the issue of drugs and their negative impact in prisons and on prisoners. However, recent research reports for the Home Office have approached the issue from an evidence-based perspective (rather than the usual emotive hogswash that often passes as drugs policy debate in Britain) and this does seem to have provoked some more serious discussion of why the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, is failing and will continue to fail. All the evidence seems to suggest that criminalising the possession of drugs just doesn’t have a significant impact when it comes to reducing drugs use. 

Failing to keep drugs out of prisons
I suppose I should make my own position clear for the avoidance of any doubt. I have never – and I mean NEVER – taken any illegal substances in my life (even when abroad in countries where there is effective decriminalisation of personal possession). However, I have had to pick up the pieces when younger family members and close friends have got into difficulties over drugs use, including making visits to A&E departments and sitting up all night next to a bed holding a bucket. 

My personal preference would be that these substances didn’t circulate, particularly having seen the misery that they can cause users and their families (mine included). However, we live in the real world and both legal and illegal drugs exist, people use them and they cause all manner of problems. So my main interest is in how, as a society, we can better manage the problem and minimise the harms that result. I suppose you could call me a Utilitarian when it comes to drugs policies.

I believe that a major part of the challenge facing any government that seeks to legislate on this emotive issue is to tackle to so-called ‘moral’ argument against drug use. My own view is that this movement has its roots in the early 20th century and is linked to the whole temperance drive against the abuse of alcohol and other drugs – primarily laudanum (an opiate solution) that could be purchased over the counter at chemists shops for centuries. Although classified as a Class A substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), tincture of opium is still manufactured pharmaceutically in the UK and can be prescribed for medical use. The moral argument is that since drugs can cause harm, they should be strictly controlled and all non-medical use strongly 
discouraged by the threat of punishment.  

Wings: drugs are easy to find in jail
The problem is that, as with any form of prohibition, demand merely drives the manufacture and supply underground, as well as the price on the street upwards. My own moral condemnation is reserved for the cartels and their insidious networks that supply and promote this form of big business. Incredible profits are generated across the globe. 

Let’s take a quick look at the official figures. In 2013, it was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that the annual global drugs trade is worth around $435 billion, with the cocaine racket alone worth $84 billion per year. Drugs activity (production, distribution and sale) represents around 50 percent of the total income generated by all organised criminal activity globally. 

That’s why the individuals who are – understandably – most concerned to keep drugs illegal are those who make the biggest profits from the trade. It does make you wonder whether the cartels are covert donors to any of the major campaigns against decriminalisation of drugs. That is pure speculation on my part, but if you think about it, it would make perfect sense. For the major players in the drugs industry, supporting decriminalisation would be like the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.

Cooking up
There can also be no doubt that drug use is a major problem in UK prisons. If we take a look at the official statistics contained in the report issued by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in December 2012 we find that:

70 percent of offenders report drug misuse prior to going to prison
51 percent of prisoners report drug dependency
35 percent of prisoners admit injecting drugs

Moreover, a survey by the Prison Reform Trust issued in September 2012 revealed that 19 percent of prisoners who had ever used heroin reported first using it in prison. That’s a pretty grim statistic and a desperately sad reflection on our penal system.

The Home Affairs Committee observed: “We accept that prisons cannot be hermetically sealed and that it will never be possible to eradicate completely the availability of drugs within prisons. However, the fact that almost a quarter of prisoners surveyed found it easy to get drugs in prison is deeply disturbing. The methods of reducing supply are only effective if they are implemented as intended.” Indeed.

Pills: easy to smuggle in
So those are some of the figures. Now let’s take a look at the impact of drugs in our prisons. I can state from personal observation that drugs are easily available inside the nick, perhaps even more so than outside. Prices are much higher than on the street – that takes into account the higher risk factors involved – and the quality is even more suspect. God alone knows what some of these substances have been cut with in order to convert a quarter into a half ounce and so on. 

For years, crumbled up bleach tablets – which used to be issued to prisoners to sterilise WCs and sinks in cells – were a popular cutting agent, along with talc, crushed up sugar or even prison-issue tea whitener. As anyone who knows anything about the misuse of drugs will confirm, many deaths or serious reactions to intravenous drug use arise from whatever substance the active ingredient has been cut with in order to increase its volume ahead of final sale.

What has it been cut with?
Cons who can source drugs and arrange for them to be smuggled into prisons can establish themselves as men of power and influence, although their positions at the top are always precarious. In my experience, it’s usually the quietest, most unassuming blokes who really control the trade. They don’t like drawing too much attention to themselves – or flaunting their ill-gotten gains. In fact, little of the money generated inside ever goes near the walls of the nick – all transactions are done outside in cash and are therefore almost untraceable. 

All a well-connected dealer who happens to be doing his ‘bird’ (sentence) inside prison needs is access to a ready supply of contraband mobile phones or SIM cards and mules willing to get the product inside. Based on my own time in the nick, I’ve come to the conclusion that most drugs that come into the prison system are brought in by staff – uniformed or civilian – rather than via the visits hall. This also seems to be accepted by many screws who are well aware of the impact that their bent colleagues can have on the supply of drugs. That’s why prison security departments keep officers and other staff under at least as close surveillance as they do the cons in their establishments.

Smuggled 'joeys': drugs
Recently, we have had a spate of prison staff being sent down for involvement in the smuggling of mobiles and other illicit contraband to prisoners. Of course, this has always been a problem, but these cases highlight the routes by which the drugs trade keeps inmates supplied with gear and other substances, as well as the communications mechanism required to organise the business. Some enterprising cons even manage to run external drugs operations from their prison cells.

Essentially, mules fall into one of three categories: those who act from ‘love’ (ie they have formed an illicit relationship with a con); those who are in it for pure profit (mostly screws) and those who are being blackmailed. In addition, ordinary cons who get into debt – very easy for those who have a habit – are prime targets to be manipulated into smuggling. In these cases, their families can be put under incredible pressure to bring drugs into prisons during visits. They are sometimes caught in the act and then charged, with the prospect of being sent down themselves. 

Pressure to get families involved
The picture is particularly bleak for those kids whose dad is inside if their mum then gets caught trying to smuggle in drugs for him. Both parents can end up serving time, while the children face the consequences outside.

I’m actually convinced that on occasion, these amateur mules are offered up by the real kingpins as sacrificial lambs, because when the security screws have been tipped off about an incoming consignment, it means that much larger amounts of drugs can be brought in while attention is focused elsewhere. In these cases, security looks good because its screws have intercepted a small decoy parcel of drugs, while the bosses on the wings get their product to sell in under the radar. It’s only the amateur patsy and the prisoner he or she is coming to visit that end up getting the heat. 

The influence of drugs inside the nick can be all-pervasive, a situation that isn’t helped by chronic shortages of frontline staff. You can see lads wandering round landings stoned out of their heads or vomiting in the wing washrooms. Since so-called ‘legal’ highs are easily available inside and don’t show up in Mandatory Drug Testing (MDTs), these are particularly popular under a variety of different names. 

MDTs: encourage harder drugs
The MDT system itself also tends to encourage the use of harder drugs, such as heroin, simply because cannabis remains in the system for up to 28 days, while smack can be detectable for anything from a few hours to about two days (although in the case of very heavy users, it can still be detected up to seven days after use). As this is common knowledge among cons, there is a preference to drift towards to harder drugs as the risk of detection can be much lower. Also, as I’ve mentioned above, so-called ‘legal’ highs aren’t tested during MDTs.

The availability of drugs inside prisons fuels turf wars between dealers (and this can spill over on to the streets outside), as well as cycles of debt, violence and punishment beatings. The trade can easily drag in family members as they are ripe for pressure to pay off debts or to smuggle in contraband to their loved ones. The whole environment can be highly corrosive, with younger prisoners sometimes being introduced to hard drugs for the first time. When a first timer leaves the nick with a serious drug habit, then you know that our present penal policy is failing disastrously.

Being honest, I doubt that decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, alone, would result in lower drugs use inside prisons. Cons resort to drugs to help them cope with the stresses and pressures of prison life – including boredom and depression. However, if new legislation reduced the number of people with existing drug habits from being imprisoned, then the problem could become more manageable.

Methadone: the 'green lady'
A much greater focus on a drugs habit as a medical or psychological issue – rather than as a disciplinary problem – could also encourage inmates to seek treatment and support from counsellors. At present, there is little real incentive for prisoners to kick their habits. In my experience, cons who are on the methadone programme rarely get clean. They simply use their daily dose of the ‘green lady’ to manage their habits and often to supplement their misuse of other illicit drugs.

Where I would see a major benefit to society is by imprisoning less people who have drug habits in the first place. Decriminalisation of all drugs for personal possession and the establishment of a legalised, safe supply system via licensed pharmacies offers the prospect of reducing the illegal street trade substantially. It would also reduce the number of deaths as a result of contaminated substances or impure doses. Such a policy would focus on harm reduction, accompanied by easy-access treatment programmes for those who wished to cease using. 

Can the Prison Service cope?
Many prisoners are serving sentences for drug-related crime, including street robbery and burglary to fund their habits. While decriminalisation might not completely eliminate these offences, I believe that by properly managing addictions, fewer people with dependencies would turn to crime as a means of paying for their habits. 

Radical as it may seem, I believe that decriminalisation offers our society the best chance of reducing crime, cutting our prison population and reducing reoffending. It’s just a pity that so many politicians – and tabloid leader writers – seem to be unable to break their own addictions to peddling faux morality and scoring cheap party political points. 

If David Cameron really fears that decriminalisation “sends the wrong message” about drugs, then what the hell does he think of the message that the easy availability of illegal (and legal) substances in our prisons sends? My answer would be “institutional failure”.



  2. Pleased to see you are posting again. I have missed my "serial."

    1. Thanks for your comment. I didn't have much internet access while I was travelling, so blogging had to wait!

  3. As always your comments and suggestions are very interesting. Sadly, your views on this topic are fatally flawed. There is no way any Government policy would be based on your ideas simply because they're so sensible. It would take an Eton educated minister to strip your ideas of any common sense to make a policy.

    I'm not, and never have been, a drug user. It would be simple to say that de-criminalising possession for personal use wouldn't affect me at all. It would.

    If addicts could be 'treated' as though they had a medical condition and prescribed the drugs they crave many of the blights on society could be avoided. Take away the illegal drug trade by allowing addicts to collect their drugs from a chemist under the supervision of a GP and other health professionals. The drugs would be manufactured to the same high standards as other pharmaceuticals, doses would be clearly defined and administered in a safe environment.

    This of course would cost money which would easily be offset by the reduction of prison inmates, overdose deaths/hospital admissions. Not to mention the inevitable massive reduction in lower level crime - thefts, robberies, burglaries etc that are committed to fund expensive drug habits.

    By completely removing the street drug market a lot of police time would be freed up and first time users would actually find it very difficult to get hold of their first 'hit'. The war on drugs could be over within a generation. But, of course, winning the war against drugs would put out the wrong message.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. I'm under no illusions that the sad bunch of no hopers and losers who congregate in the Palace of Westminster will make a positive move on the drugs debate any time soon. However, in the USA which used to be much more hardline, there is constructive discussion going on and some states are liberalising their outdated laws on personal possession, particularly of cannabis for medicinal use.

      Common sense solutions rarely appeal to politicians, but I do hope that in the coming years we might move towards treating addictions as medical issues, rather than criminal activities. If so, then I believe that it would make a significant contribution to reducing crime, as well as our bloated prison population.

  4. The UK should follow the Dutch example and allow us to buy and smoke Sativa or Indica within specialised coffee shops.

    1. Thanks for your comment. However it is organised in the end, decriminalisation in a well organised way is the way I feel we should be going. However, I'm not going to hold my breath on it!

  5. Alcohol is the worst drug of all! It's cheap, socially acceptable and legal.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. I've met so many younger (and some older!) men in prison who are there solely, or mainly, because of their drinking habits and the violence that follows.

      I well remember one lad - a very decent bloke when sober - who had over 70 convictions for alcohol-related offences, culminating in a horrendously violent attack on a fellow alcoholic in a carpark. He was absolutely desperate to change, but in the 10 months I was in prison with him (he was my next door neighbour for months) he didn't get any assistance at all. I can only hope that he has managed to stay sober under his own steam, although I fear the worst.

  6. it's weird, i was going to come on here to say something about alcohol and i see the person above has already said it! where i live, on a friday and saturday night it's like hell out there because of alcohol, i literally don't want to walk down the street in case someone starts shouting at me. i know some people can use it responsibly, and people that stay indoors when they drink (like me!) probably cause way less probs and are also unseen. but the problems alcohol causes around here are hideous...

    i'm not even going to list off the incidents but i've had to defend myself against drunk old men on the bus so many times its not even funny. ive been called a slag, had a shoe thrown at me, and been threatened by drunk people in the past few years.

    what's the answer? i don't know, and i can't imagine alcohol will ever be banned. one of my friends now works in a&e as a nurse. the problems it causes (according to her) are hideous.

    so if drugs were legalised would the problems linked to them go up or down?
    people like drugs and they're going to take them whether they're legal or not. to be honest, if your life is shit and you're struggling to turn it around, and you can feel "OK" for a couple of hours, that can be a blessing.

    i've two thoughts on this really:

    1. something that's not often mentioned, but drugs being illicit can make them harder to get and provide a barrier to accessing them that's enough to keep some people away. for example, a friend is a recovering heroin addict, she's been off it for over 11 years. she's told me that if she could simply go to a shop and buy it legally, in times of weakness she probably would have. whereas the fact she moved away from the area she was using, started again, and has no contact with any of those people now, means that it helps her to stay clean. imagine the temptation of it all being above board? she doesn't want to get into any more trouble.

    2. having said that, the advantages of being able to get drugs legally might drastically reduce crime and suffering. what happened in portugal when they decriminalised stuff? that's the only place i can think of recently that did it, but having said that, the mentality in portugal is different than over here so we can't really assume that what happens in one country will be reflected in another.


    ps this comment box is tiny, is there any way to make it bigger? i can only see a couple of lines at a time.

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for your thoughtful comments and contribution to the debate. Alcohol is a major factor in many criminal and anti-social offences. Ironically, opiates tend to make people dozy and quiet, while excessive alcohol can lower inhibitions and make people behave violently, even if in their sober state they aren't usually violent individuals.

      I agree that a significant number of people do tend to 'self-medicate' for a variety of problems, physical, emotional and psychological, by using (or misusing) alcohol as well as other drugs (legal and illegal). Many prisoners certainly take drugs inside jails in order to help them cope with boredom, depression or badly managed physical pain, as well as because of mental health problems (often attributable to abuse in earlier life).

      I think the key issue with decriminalisation of personal possession is all about reducing harms, rather than totally resolving the problem. However, if those who have dependencies were to be encouraged to treat their addictions as medical, rather than criminal, issues then it might be possible to redirect some of the public money we currently waste on imprisoning people for non-violent drug related offences to community-based support projects which could help them manage their lives - and their dependencies - much better. The evidence of the beneficial effects of this sort of approach can be seen around the world, but sadly our political class is about 50 years behind the times!

      I'm not sure of how to adjust the size of the font in this section other than cutting and pasting from Word as suggested below. However, the box can be enlarged by clicking and dragging on the lower left hand corner.

  7. Copy and paste from "Word"

  8. Isn't it sad about Ann Maguire?

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is a terribly tragic and horrific case. You might be interested in my latest blog post about children who kill and how our present YOI and prison system isn't likely to reduce their risk of reoffending.

  9. It's incredibly sad. What I can't quite understand though is the rationale behind putting a child in prison for at least 20 years, especially as his stated motive for the murder makes him sound mentally ill. What happened to trying kids as juveniles?

    1. Thanks for your comments. Indeed, it seems that as a society we like to keep children as far from real responsibility as possible: no smoking, drinking, sexual activity, buying lottery tickets or voting, but as soon as a kid commits a criminal offence, they automatically become evil monsters.

      I well recall the disgusting tabloid media furore over the two young kids who murdered poor little James Bulger and even the popular demands that they be hanged, even though they were only 10 years old themselves. Not even Iran or China would contemplate executing 10 year olds! And yet we still regard ourselves as being so morally superior when it comes to human rights! Most of the rest of Europe must think we are all punishment-freaks, sadists and fruitcakes when it comes to the way in which we deliver what passes as juvenile 'justice' in England.

  10. The Guardian mentioned he was diagnosed with a life limiting illness before he started to change his behaviour. He had contemplated suicide and murder at the same time cos his illness had barred him from joining the army and Ann had vexed him in some way. The kid held these thoughts for 3 years and no-one picked up in it.

    1. Thanks for both comments above. I have posted on this very issue today. Neither the judge, nor the media have distinguished themselves. Really, the only people who have handled this horrendous situation without reproach are Mrs Maguire's family - whose dignity and restraint have been entirely admirable - and the boy's own parents who had the courage and sense of love and responsibility to sit with him in the dock. Both families are now serving, in different ways, a life sentence and the behaviour of the media - even the so-called 'quality' press - has done nothing to help anyone.

  11. Great to have you back Alex and agree with comments re the dreadful case sentenced yesterday. I'd be interested in a post on how inmates treat notorious inmates when they arrive and more generally how much inmates know of or discuss their offences. As you've said in other posts many people in prison form friendships that wouldn't happen on the outside but wondered how much notoriety might impact on this

    1. Thanks for your comments and question, Lissa. It's good to be blogging again, even when the subjects are pretty grim.

      Most notorious prisoners are likely to begin their sentences in higher security establishments, mainly Cat-As for those who have killed and are serving very long minimum tariffs, so it's a bit difficult for me to write much on their initial receptions. In the case of young offenders, like the boy who murdered Mrs Maguire, he'll start off in a small, specialist secure unit within a YOI and the focus will be on education and psychological evaluations, rather than on punishment. That will come later when he turns 18 and transfers to a mainstream YOI. I expect that this will be the point when his notoriety really kicks in.

      Some fellow YOs will probably try to befriend him in order to see what makes him tick. A fair few may be afraid of him because of the cold way in which he killed and his lack of remorse.

      Adult establishments are a bit different. What people are in for is generally known on the wings. Lifers and IPPs, at least in my experience, are very slow to trust other cons (or staff, for that matter), so they often keep their distance. There is a justified fear among indeterminate sentenced prisoners that a wrong word or comment may get into their p-NOMIS files and damage their future prospects for parole and this sort of thing does happen all the time.

      I tend to find that only those prisoners who are on appeal against conviction, or who are steadfastly maintaining their innocence really want to discuss their cases. Those who pleaded guilty seem to want to move on and focus on their futures, rather than dwelling on their offences, at least outside of offending behaviour programmes and courses.

      I once worked very closely with a multiple murderer whose crimes, committed many years ago, were truly horrendous. However, you'd never have known that when having a coffee with him. He was a little bit eccentric and touchy, with a short temper, but I spent many hours each day chatting with him and we got on very well. He was very well read and had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient history and archaeology, so we had a lot of outside interests in common. He was a great asset on our team during weekly quiz nights in the chapel!

      I have certainly associated with, and in some cases, become friends with, men whose crimes made me feel very uneasy. However, I'm mature enough to recognise that someone who committed a terrible offence over 30 years earlier was not the same person today. He had changed, matured, learned to live with his sense of guilt and moved on.

      Of course, sharing cells with lifers I've heard all sorts of gossip about famous (and infamous) cons that are still household names. However, since I've never met these men myself, I'm not in a position to judge whether any of these stories are true, false or very exaggerated, so I keep an open mind.

      Of my fellow ex-cons that I do keep in touch with now, most of them tend to be high-end fraudsters, ex-solicitors or the occasional armed robber. A few of them I might have met in other circumstances had we lived in the same area, but our common bond is in having been inside together. We have shared history and acquaintances, so that keeps our conversation going even though most of us are out of the nick.

  12. Thanks as ever for such an informative response. It seems so hard for most people to comprehend the crime is not all the person is.

  13. Zajmujemy siê prowadzeniem postêpowañ karnych oskar¿onych o przestêpstwo posiadanie narkotyków, posiadania marihuany tj. naruszenia art. 62 ustawy o przeciwdzia³aniu narkomanii.