NPS in prison - RSA

Blog: Guinea Pigs & Bird Killer - NPS in Prison


  • Drug & alcohol recovery
  • Prisons

I feel that I must declare an interest before I start. I have been into prison, in fact, a number of prisons and largely because I have never been convicted of an offence I have enjoyed time with this varied (albeit male) population. It was a fascinating experience for me and luckily I was paid for the pleasure, but it was also incredibly difficult to witness the destructive effects of drugs amongst a community of vulnerable people that should otherwise have been protected.

Prison is a strict mechanism of control. There is rigorous regulation of time and space. It is an ordered environment that manufactures boredom and restricts liberty. Their physical design is such that officers should be able to see everything. Systems are designed to provide security to those working and those who are housed. It is a carceral network and yet it fails. A prison might have a wall, but this wall is breachable. Nothing highlights this further than the issue of drugs in prison.

According to the Prison Reform Trust annual report, Prison: The Facts (2014); ‘over half of prisoners (55%) report committing offences connected to their drug taking, with the need for money to buy drugs most commonly cited.’ So from a basic starting point, more than half of prisoners are involved (in some way) with drugs by the time they get into prison. This is an army of capable personnel who, given the opportunity, might wish to continue consuming, producing or supplying. The rest of the prison population are sitting ducks.

It is easy to see how this paradigm supports a kind of ‘captive capitalism’ and may go some way in explaining why drugs are big business in prison, but the game has just got even easier. Welcome to NPS in prison.

New Psychoactive Substances are fast becoming a concern outside of prison. Regulation surrounding ‘Headshops’ is widely debated (the Government is trying to ban them with the Home Office bill currently going through Parliament), use among young people seems to be increasing (despite the dangers and uncertainty of the product) and media coverage is fuelling public opinion. However, less concern is given to the increasing problem of NPS inside prisons despite up to 40% of all drugs confiscated being ‘legal highs’. Not only is the prevalence of NPS in prison a problem, but these synthetic substances simulate the effects of some Class A drugs like cocaine, therefore creating the same emotional and physical responses. There is also no comprehensive test for NPS because new compounds are increasingly added to substances to evade the law, so users are therefore ‘missed’ by the testing procedure. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman currently reports that NPS not only appear to be a trigger for self-harm, but are said to have been a factor in 19 prison deaths during 2012-014. The Prison Officers Association (POA) are so concerned by this that they fear a serious assault on a member of staff or prisoner.

The legal approach to drug-taking is also slightly ambiguous. It is not illegal to have taken a drug in the UK, that is, if you are intoxicated and not doing any harm (notwithstanding the laws on supply and possession). However, if you are in prison, it is illegal to be intoxicated. This creates more problems for the Prison Service. How do you punish, medically engage and safely remove to a drug free environment, every prisoner caught under the influence?

Spice, along with Black Mamba, are currently the (NPS) drugs of choice in prisons throughout the country. These particular NPS are synthetic cannabinoids which, when smoked, mimic the psychoactive effects of THC and causes hallucinogenic trips, stronger than cannabis and similar to LSD. Synthetic cannabinoids are both illegal inside and outside of prison, but enforcing this law may prove difficult. Only those samples containing controlled cannabinoids will be illegal, those containing just psychoactive herbs will not be. The only way to determine the contents of any given sample is by forensic testing, which may not be cost effective when dealing with such large numbers. Taking Spice in prison is commonly referred to as ‘bird killer’, a label which is problematic in itself as often these substances are cut with all number of legal pesticides, cleaning products and other industrial agents. The continual manipulation of chemical components is to avoid ever changing legal restrictions and beat the current technology used for testing.

Perhaps the best way to really understand the problems of NPS in prison is to ask those caught up in that environment. More often than not, we hear from politicians who pitch their argument against prison staff and unions. Rarely do we hear from current serving prisoners. In Kent there is a film project working closely with prisoners in two local prisons, HMP Rochester and HMP Elmley. Rochester Film Project, under the guise of award-winning film maker Tim Cronin, are working to engage offenders in all aspects of the film making process, choosing relevant topics and giving participants a voice from behind bars. The project believes that the process of film making is essentially one of problem solving and that this challenges the participants to remain calm and negotiate effectively with authority, as well as each other, in order to produce an effective result. This is achieved in their latest production on the subject of NPS in prison. ‘NPS in Prison: Guinea Pigs’ includes interviews with serving prisoners, RAPT workers and academics alike, providing in-depth and very real experiences and understanding of the problem. What we learn from the prisoners interviewed is that Spice is easily accessible despite being expensive, and is widely used. There seems to be a longing to escape the mundanity of the sentence, being out of your head for most of the time, killing bird. Unsurprisingly, what we learn from the drugs worker is that the current system is failing and not supportive of users. According to a recent Drugscope survey published in January 2015, one drug worker interviewed said that ‘inmates at a Liverpool prison had become so used to emergency services being called out when people collapsed after taking Black Mamba, that ambulances are now known as ‘the Mambalance’.’

Something clearly needs to happen. The prison system is facing a huge crisis. The new Justice Secretary has been tasked with a heavy prospect but has already starting picking away at the issues; addressing a ban on smoking, re-introducing books-for-prisoners and reforming prison educational standards. When he gets to the issue of drugs in prison, particularly NPS, he needs to consider the wider picture. Historically, prisoners with addiction issues have been ‘managed’ on a separate wing by a small team of drug and alcohol workers (RAPT). These prisoners are often known drug users who appear in prison regularly and are treated for the same issues over and over. We are seeing a new phenomenon with NPS. A much wider range of prisoners are using these drugs, prisoners previously unknown to the treatment providers. They are using drugs which are cheaper to purchase, easier to transport and far more difficult to detect in the body. Usage is open and widespread. This activity is, for many, an antidote to the mundanity of prison time. Boredom is an issue that faces most users in recovery. Outside of prison the key to a good sustained recovery is helping the individual fill the void left by ‘not using’ and help develop a sense of belonging with their surroundings and community. The Whole Person Recovery (WPR) program currently implemented by the RSA’s West Kent Team follows one such path. It considers the holistic approach to drug and alcohol recovery, placing the user at the centre of their own recovery journey. WPR builds on the individuals’ personal, social and community resources and help to create an environment where recovery can be maintained.

If we consider prison as a community then there is no reason why we cannot apply a similar approach. After all, the same factors are in play. At a fundamental level we are dealing with individuals, addiction and boredom. Investment in educational and creative support services in prison that can run alongside a prescribed treatment service can only help to provide a more holistic approach. There is evidence that projects like the Rochester Film Project are improving moral in HMP Rochester, you only have to talk to the Governors to hear about the positive impact it is having. If this approach could be rolled out to other prisons, where more choice is offered to the individual and far greater consideration given to the wider recovery process, it is just possible that the issue of drugs and NPS in prison could be better managed.

For further details about the film work in HMP Rochester or if you would like more information about his community projects, please contact Tim here.


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