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Prison & probation
Written by Nick Rochford   
Monday, 19 December 1994 00:00


An inmate's eye-view of drugs in prisons

by Nick Rochford.

I was released from an East Anglian prison three months ago. In January 1992 I was sentenced at Crown Court after time on remand at HMP Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Brixton. Prisoners coming into these 'dispersal' prisons from the courts and off the streets bring their drug use habits with them and are loathe to give them up. Motivated by boredom, status and poor self-esteem they prevail with threats, blackmail and promises upon their friends, relatives and spouses to bring them drugs on visits or to post them concealed in permitted items. The rules and procedures are continually revised but still prison officers find themselves apprehending middle-aged mothers, wives and girifriends with young children in their arms with packages wrapped in clingfilm secreted in their mouths or on their person. The prisoners swallow or anally secrete ('bottle') such contraband to be extracted later.

The experienced or well-advised prisoner keeps apart from all this turmoil, avoiding creating a bad first impression which can take years to get rid of, hoping to be able to serve his sentence in a more relaxed regime when he is allocated to his final prison. There the marketplace has been running for years.

Smuggled into the prison is cannabis, all types of pills and powders, LSD, crack - and most prized of all - heroin. Originating inside the prison are syringes and needles stolen from the medical facility, anti-depressants and the ubiquitous prison 'hooch' (alcohol).

This is fermented from fruit, rice, potatoes, sugar and Marmite for yeast in plastic drink bottles or refuse sacks. Up to 12 gallons of partly fermented fruit juice which sells for o2 a litre can be brewed in seven days. It varies from two to ten per cent proof and when drunk in quantity by sober ex-alcoholics over a weekend causes fights, bullying and enough raucous behaviour to goad the prison officers to search for it, mainly by smell. Hilarious scenes take place reminiscent of Porridge crossed with a Carry-On film as gallons of hooch surge across a landing from a burst refuse bag.

All drink and drugs are exchangeable according to the rates prevailing throughout the prison although access and availability can be difficult to the point of farce - drawn, sweating faces, and limp bodies in search of the next 10 Pound bag. Credit, while always available, is quickly exhausted. Any drug shortage in London is mirrored in the prison and results in violence, theft, betrayal and horror stories.

At the fortnightly visits where the returning prisoner is 'rubbed down' and sometimes strip searched, the anal search is no longer resorted to, though whether that option is still allowed within the prison system is still a mystery. Prisoners also return from home leaves of two to five days and then have the opportunity to smuggle drugs in. Only a few prisons have proper X-ray equipment, and metal detectors. There are drug detecting dogs somewhere within the system but in three years I was inside I didn't see any.

Ten years ago when I was first in prison drug use was restricted to a few inmates. Today everybody uses cannabis and many prisoners who have never touched heroin are getting their first taste in prison. It is the ideal drug for such a place, time passes effortlessly in a warm glow, while the prison hustler collects up the cash as it comes into the prison and then passes it back out again. I have seen a a 1,000 Pounds in a roll of notes, two ounces of heroin being cut-up into 10 Pound bags, (20 bags to one gram), ounces of cannabis at 200 Pounds each in small deals, a hundred methadone pills at 5 Pounds for two. Credit is constantly available. The user who can no longer persuade his outside connections to support him is likely to be threatened, beaten up and eventually stabbed. He will generally apply to be segregated (Rule 43) and become a prison leper whose 'rep'(reputation) will follow him from prison to prison. Sometimes he will start again in a new prison until the grapevine catches up with him.

AIDS comes into the prison with the prisoners. Shared syringes are crudely washed out between use, nonetheless sufficient to kill the virus. There are health education programmes on drugs and AIDS in most prisons and very little unsafe sexual activity now takes place. No inmate who is known to be HIV positive by the prisoners will be allowed to remain unmolested in the general population. He will be harried, harassed and driven into protective segregation.

Based on what I experienced in three prisons over the last three years I would suggest that new hard drug addicts are being created in large numbers. The Prison Service and the Home Office are now aware of this but as the prison population is set to increase so are their problems. It is going to get worse and I'm not going to go back to prison if I can help it.