An epidemic of synthetic drugs in prisons is “completely out of control” and the “new normal”, a prison deaths watchdog has warned, as signs emerge that the impact is spreading to immigration removal centres and bail hostels.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) found inmates were dying preventably, particularly as a result of alarming levels of drug misuse behind bars.
In her annual report for 2017-18, acting PPO Elizabeth Moody highlighted the impact of psychoactive substances, formerly known as “legal highs”, such as spice, which is frequently cited as a major factor behind the prisons crisis in England and Wales.
Moody said at a briefing: “It’s completely out of control now in prisons – it’s so readily available.
“Prisons are struggling with the consequences of bad batches of psychoactive substances, which can result in simultaneous multiple collapses of prisoners, unsustainable demand on prison resources, ambulances queuing up at the prison gate and, all too often, death.
“This destructive epidemic of psychoactive substance use has become the ‘new normal’ in prisons.”
Moody called for a national strategy to tackle the problem as prisons are struggling to stop the substances getting in or reduce demand for them.
The ombudsman also raised concerns about the number of deaths it investigates in immigration removal centres and approved premises in which the drugs have played a part.
Approved premises, previously known as probation and bail hostels, hold individuals who require additional support and supervision in the community upon release from prison or while on bail or court orders.
The review said that while the widespread use of psychoactive substances in the prison estate was well-documented, the probation service needed to address the implications for the approved premises estate.
Theombudsman has reported a significant number of deaths where illicit drug use played a role.
These include accidental or deliberate overdoses, suicides precipitated by drug-related mood changes or in response to drug-related debts and bullying, and heart attacks and respiratory failure in apparently fit individuals.
Substances involved in the deaths also include heroin, cocaine and illicitly traded prescription medicines.
Moody said: “The ease with which prisoners are apparently able to obtain these drugs in prison is truly alarming. A further concern is that staff too often tell us that they had no idea a prisoner was using illicit drugs before he was found dead in his cell.”
In 2017-18, the PPO investigated 316 deaths, a 12% decrease on the previous year. The majority (93%) were prisoner deaths. The ombudsman received 4,790 complaints, a 4% fall on the previous 12 months.
Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, said: “Preventable deaths in prison continue and are still at historically high levels. Many occur because of failures in treatment and care. The same recommendations on systemic failings are repeated by the PPO with dismal regularity. The systematic disregard of potentially lifesaving recommendations demonstrates a lamentable complacency at all levels of the prison and health service.
“What is needed is far greater accountability following deaths, with statutory enforcement, national oversight and monitoring of actions taken. However, to sustainably improve safety and stop these deaths would require a dramatic reduction in the prison population and investment in diversion and community alternatives.”
Mark Day, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This disturbing report paints a bleak picture of a prison system where people are dying needlessly and where lessons clearly set out by the Ombudsman are not being learned.”
Thousands of prison officers took part in a walkout last month to protest at conditions in prisons in England and Wales, where there has been a rise in the number of assaults and incidents of self-harm and an increase in phone and drug seizures. In the year to March there were a record 9,003 attacks on prison staff, up 26% from 2017, with 892 classed as serious.
Overall, attacks in prisons rose to a record 31,025 last year, almost twice the 15,644 assaults recorded in the year to March 2008 and up 16% from the previous year, according to the most recent figures from the Ministry of Justice.
In July, the MoJ announced a £30m investment, including £16m to improve conditions for prisoners and staff and £7m on security measures such as airport-style scanners, improved searching techniques and phone-blocking technology.
In August, the department announced that another £10m would be invested in 10 problem prisons to curb the flow of drugs and phones.