Addiction in prison should concern us all

Addiction in prison should concern us all

13th March 2015

At 13, Andrew started misusing lighter gas and cannabis. By 28, he was growing and selling cannabis to pay for a serious cocaine addiction. 12 years later, after losing all his family and friends, he was caught and sent to prison.

Andrew didn’t expect to stop taking drugs in prison: he knew they were easy to get hold of and there is little else to do inside. Yet he stumbled on an abstinence-based drug treatment programme at HMP The Mount. It completely changed his life; six months later he was free from all drugs.

Andrew left prison nine months ago and has been abstinent ever since. He has regained contact with his family and is learning how to be a father. He has turned his back on crime.

Unfortunately, Andrew’s experience is rare. The CSJ’s report, Drugs in Prison, found that most prisoners do not tackle their addiction in prison – in fact, seven per cent develop a drug problem while inside. The ‘treatment’ they receive is little more than warehousing. The report also found that only 31 per cent of those in treatment for opiate addiction are being helped to detox; the rest are maintained on substitute opiates. It is getting worse: six years ago 79 per cent were being detoxed. Prisoners need to be encouraged towards abstinence.

Many prisons also fail to provide a rehabilitative environment. At the beginning of this Parliament, the Coalition Government introduced 10 ‘Drug Recovery Wing’ (DRW) pilots. These were intended to encourage effective abstinence-based treatment through the creation of drug-free spaces in prisons. Our report found that while some worked well, others were failing to the extent that they were full of drugs.

For example, HMP Brixton’s ‘Wing’ originally consisted of just half a wing. Due to staff shortages, we heard how staff would open the doors separating the two halves at lunchtimes so that just one officer was needed to patrol. This allowed the drug dealers to come in and peddle their trade.

We also found that DRWs were being used on some occasions as a dumping ground to alleviate other prison problems. One Wing housed violent inmates; another those who were being bullied. Our report identified four basic principles that any future DRW must adhere to in order to achieve success. All resident prisoners and staff must be committed to abstinence-based recovery. There must be a sense of progression for resident prisoners (such as incremental increases in responsibility and autonomy). Finally, DRWs must be drug-free. But of course, more broadly, we need to work towards all prisons being totally drug free.

Yet it is not enough to help prisoners recover while in prison: we must ensure they are provided with continuous care during their transition into the community. Too often, inmates fall through the gap between prison- and community-based providers upon release. Continuity is crucial because prisoners in recovery are highly vulnerable in the weeks immediately after they are let out.

Peer mentors should be used to bridge this gap. They have beaten addiction themselves and personally understand the needs of service users.

Failure to tackle addiction in prison has significant consequences. The drugs trade fuels violence in prisons, and if prisoners leave with an addiction they are far more likely to commit crime to pay for their habit. Heroin and crack cocaine users alone are responsible for 45 per cent of all acquisitive crime (excluding fraud), costing the taxpayer £4.7 billion annually.

Drugs in prisons harm us all. The status quo is working for no-one but the dealers. The prison drugs trade desperately needs to be tackled, for doing so will turn around the lives of addicts and reduce crime.