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Articles - Prison & probation
Written by Debroah Cheney   


by Debroah Cheney.

In December 1995 the report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) on Riley women’s prison recorded allegations of serious sexual assaults and other assaults by a gang of women prisoners seeking to coerce others into drug smuggling. The alleged sexual assaults were of a group of inmates carrying out internal searches on other inmates for drugs. The price paid for drugs in prison is indeed a high one, not only financially but in human terms.

Unfortunately, the alleged events at Risley do not sit in isolation. Drugs have become a widespread commodity behind prison walls and their entry into prisons is the cause of many inmates and their families living in fear. The story is a squalid, violent, depressing and tragic one, with many ‘horror stories’.

It is no fiction that inmates may be threatened with serious assaults if they do not bring drugs into prison on return from home leave.These are not idle threats, but are backed up with violence such an ‘accident’ with scalding water. Such threats have even scared some inmates off applying for home leave. And families suffer either way through lack of contact if takes home leave, implicated in the pressure to smuggle drug< back into prison.

It is no fiction that families and friends have been followed home from their prison visits and subjected to threats if they do not import drugs or cash on subsequent visits, or have their possessions taken from them to meet the debts of al inmate.

It is no fiction that inmates are subjected to serious assaults including stabbing and the throwing of boiling fat over victims as a consequence of not meeting drug debts.

It is no fiction that inmates are subjected to blackmail in order to persuade them to obtain drugs. Women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to this approach if they have not declared they have a child, because of the fear it will be take into care.

The nightmare created by drugs crime in prisons does not end there. The whole manner of how a sentence is serve can be affected. During sentence an otherwise well-adjusted inmate may seek ‘Rule 43 protection’, subjecting him or her to isolation in order to avoid the consequences of incurring drug debts. Transfer between prisons provides no escape, the prison grapevine ensuring that a reputation for unpaid debts will catch up with inmates eventually. Keeping up contact with the family by telephone may come second to the use of phone cards as a commodity through which debt and injury can be avoided. Personal health may be relegated to second place in order to get money for prescribed medicine. And on release many inmates are likely to carry out of the prison gates a bag of possessions which bears little resemblance to the property they originally brought into prison. Items become depleted through a combination of the culture of theft to meet drug use, and enforced trading in possessions in order to meet personal drug debts. After release an inmate may not only face the world outside for the first time with a ‘habit’ which they need to feed and finance, but also with outstanding drug debts to honour both potential catalysts for criminal activity.

Many inmates will tell you their drug use is a legacy of having been in prison and evidence certainly suggests that use of drugs for the first time only after entering prison is not uncommon. Research undertaken at Long Lartin for example, found that 62 per cent of those using heroin had a specific prison habit. This is consistent with a two year prison service study based on inmate interviews which showed 60 per cent of addicted inmates in high security prisons developed their habit whilst in custody. A report by the East Kent Area Health Authority in 1994 confirmed the use of drugs as currency, pressure on inmates who are allowed home leave to bring drugs back or face reprisals and reports from ex-prisoners who claimed they had been first introduced to drugs whilst in a Kent prison. In addition the nature of the drugs possessed, sold and used are increasingly found to be ‘hard dugs’. The recent annual report of the office of HMCIP provides a graphic picture of the extent of the problem in reference to one establishment where they were so concerned by the high level of drug taking that the inspectorate’s specialist in health care was called in specially. "Inmates at Styal Prison asserted, and staff agreed, that drugs brought in by visitors and inmates who had been on home leave were freely available in the prison. We were told that almost all inmates used cannabis. A large proportion took opiates, mainly heroin, probably about half took cocaine or crack, and a lesser proportion took amphetamines and occasionally LSD. We were given to understand that more than half took benzodiazepines and that more than half of those who injected shared needles," the report said.

Whilst the reasons for succumbing to drugs when in prison are as many and varied as the stimulants which are available to the inmate population, not least among these is a peer pressure often engineered by a powerful dealer either within or without the prison walls. This miserable catalogue is the result of a drug sub-culture which is, in many cases, a ruthless and systematic product of organised crime. The sale of drugs within the prison setting is such a lucrative organised crime that in some areas, such as Manchester and Liverpool, gangs have been established whose raison d’etre is to extend their market inside prison walls. The ‘business opportunity’ which prison landings offer is so attractive that they are able to secure their market, whose customers then face price increases over which they are in no position to haggle. The price is paid by them or their families in money, smuggling, or assault.

Whilst organised crime requires an organised approach, the police and prison service have consistently failed to adopt an organised intelligence-based strategy to deal with the situation. Such a strategy would encompass pro-active intelligence gathering and target operations concerning prison inmates and visitors; police visitors would be given the assistance necessary to effect their purpose and prison contacts with the police properly directed to ensure feedback is given where appropriate. The reality is that the theory is advanced more often than the practice; to quote one police view: "No one agency can solve the problem in isolation. Perhaps not unreasonably we all approach this from different angles as we have different aims and different raison d’etre. It is however crucial that we overcome any obstacles to progress. Together we can make progress. The costs of inaction are too costly to contemplate." This is an admirable sentiment yet there is a paucity of pro-active intelligence-driven strategy and information dissemination, insufficient to traverse the gap existing between the priorities of the prison and police services. This gap currently tends to be the product of each service putting their own priorities uppermost. In particular there exists a ‘we aren’t here to do the police’s job for them’ approach by the prisons, based on an unwillingness born of a lack of perceived benefit to the prison service. This is compounded by senior prison service staff seeing the maintenance of order as a prime responsibility and fearing the consequences if inmates learn of official collusion. The consequence is a disparate and at times non-existent liaison. Even the role of ‘force prison liaison officer’ is loosely, if at all, defined and prison liaison appears low on the list of force priorities.

The other side of the coin is the organised nature of dealers within the system who, being behind prison walls, are arguably much easier to deal with. Yet this has equally been the subject of little organised strategy. The HCIMP annual report records: "We were told at Parkhurst prison in October 1994 that eight out of 11 prisoners who had been transferred from Long Lartin prison following an investigation into serious drug dealing, were together again at Parkhurst." The governor at Risley, facing the situation described at the outset of this paper, was found by HMCIP to have received little help from other prisons or the prison service when she decided to split the alleged gang members up. The prison service is quick to respond by moving and separating prisoners who pose a threat to control after a violent demonstration or riot, yet there is clearly no comparable appreciation of how organised drug dealing itself poses a threat to good order and compromises the safety of prisoners and staff by creating both a physical and health risk.

The first step toward progress is to accept the tragic fact that prisons have become barter towns for drugs and a lucrative ‘captive market’ where others can trade on human misery. The prison service would have us believe they have taken this truth on board through the introduction of mandatory drug testing (MDT). But is a focus on retribution against the individual in fact the way to stem the tide of what has clearly become an organised criminal activity both inside and outside prison walls?

The introduction of mandatory drug testing will arguably make few inroads into resolving this state of affairs, particularly given the imperatives such as threats to their families or to themselves which many inmates face. The choice between being scalded or a few days closed visits, loss of (poor) earnings or between seven to 20 days added to a sentence is not a philosophical dilemma the average inmate will puzzle over. Equally, as a practice designed to ‘shut the stable door after the horse has bolted’ M DT lacks any organised approach to what has become an organised crimeðstanding less as a pro-active measure than a testament to the fact that strip searches of prisoners after visits are ineffective in finding the drugs inserted into anal and genital areas. In addition there is the suggestion by many that the introduction of this scheme may in fact accelerate the use of ‘hard drugs’ amongst prisoners, on the grounds that the effects of cannabis use are detectable long after the use of drugs such as cocaine and LSD. It is estimated the use of cannabis once or twice a week can remain detectible for up to ten days, daily use up to 30 days; by comparison cocaine remains in the system for four days and LSD three days. Adherents to this argument suggest, not unreasonably, that prisoners are prepared to gamble with the lottery of being picked for random testing. After all, it does not take an exceptionally gifted inmate to take advantage of staff shortages characterised visibly in increased hours of being ‘banged up’ by ensuring they take a hard drug on a Friday in the knowledge that the earliest they will be tested is a Monday. If advocates of this argument are right, it is a suggestion which cannot be dismissed lightly, the introduction of mandatory drug testing may achieve little more than giving cause to celebrate to those who provide drugs ipr their captive market, and creating a brand new prison currency in urine (a product which will test at body temperature if concealed in a condom in the rectum, and thereby pass a the sample of the tested inmate).

Until recent times there was an effective condoning of cannabis smoking in prison with officers turning a blind eye to a recreational activity which arguably made their charges a more placid group. Time however marches on and more restrictive regimes have a tendency to produce inmates who seek solace and a ‘no hope’ situation which engenders people who have nothing to lose. Solace is found in so-called hard drugs and there is no shortage of ‘fairy godmothers’ promising their stories can have a happy ending, but in the process making that happy ending the financial outcome of their own.

The ‘happily ever after’ ending for the perpetrators is ensured by virtue of the prison service focusing upon the effective victim. Indeed one could be forgiven for being driven to the thought that perhaps the prison service has created its own monster. That they are not slaying this monster is evident. The term ‘drug strategy’ is now becoming synonymous with MDT, with the educative and rehabilitative elements diminishing in importance. Similarly MDT is leading to drug-taking becoming less of a health issue than a criminal/punishment issue, with health education marginalised despite the fact that most inmates fall within the most sexually active group of society and will be returning to the community and resuming relationships within relatively short periods. Unless the prison service recognise in more tangible terms that organised crime is being perpetrated behind prison walls, that ‘drug debts’ are synonymous with less food for an inmate’s spouse and children, then there will not only be a growth in the organised crime centred around this sub-culture, but the prison service will be adding to it and there are quite enough monsters in this story already.

Dr Debroah Cheney is a lecturer in law at the University of Kent


Annual report of H Chief Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales: April 1994 March 1995, HMSO.

HM Prison Risley, Report of an unannounced short inspection, H Inspectorate of Prisons, December 1995.

Drugs: how big is the problem, and what can we do about it?, Prison Service Journal, Issue 99, May 1995.

Dr KC Mohanty, Drugs in Prison, The Magistrate, February 1995.

Drug Misuse: the needs and provision of care in South East Kent, Department ot Public Health. 1994.




Our valuable member Debroah Cheney has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.