The ease with which prisoners are able to get their hands on drugs has been an increasing concern for governments across Europe for some time now. While most right-thinking people would properly assume that jails should be one of the hardest places imaginable to obtain illegal substances, many former inmates and prison studies are claiming with alarming regularity that it is easier to buy all manner of illicit drugs behind bars than it is on the street. New psychoactive substances have become a particular favourite among prisoners, chiefly on account of their low cost and promise of total oblivion once consumed. In the UK, tabloid newspapers now regularly carry footage of prisoners in catatonic states having smoked synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice, while it was revealed at the beginning of last year that the number of ambulances called to British jails had rocketed by 40% due to prisoners’ consumption of former legal highs. It has even been reported that prison officers have been falling ill after inhaling the fumes of new psychoactive substances smoked by inmates.
While prison authorities across Europe go to varying lengths to stem the flow of drugs flooding into their institutions, it has become apparent over recent years that they appear to be fighting a losing battle. But it seems however hard prisons claim they try to limit the amounts of drugs that make their way into inmates’ hands, the desire to consume illegal substances among prison populations coupled with the profit available to those who are able to successfully smuggle contraband into jails have created a problem authorities appear incapable of tackling.
The huge amounts of money to be made are driving drug dealers to come up with ever more inventive ways of sneaking illegal substances to their contacts inside jails. An investigation conducted at prisons in Liverpool in 2014 found that an ounce of Spice could fetch as much as £4,000 (€4,562) behind bars, compared to just £100 on the streets. While a large percentage of the drugs that made their way into prisons would at one stage most commonly be surreptitiously handed over to inmates during visits, smugglers have come up with an array of ingenious new methods to get their products past prison officers. From slicing open dead birds and filling their bodies with narcotics before slinging them over prison walls, to flying consumer drones laden with contraband up to cell windows for inmates to reach out and grab, it seems that prison authorities are constantly playing catch-up. Some petty criminals have even been known to commit offences with the aim of being sent to jail so as they can smuggle drugs to other inmates after concealing them internally. Last week, it was revealed that prison authorities in the UK had been forced to start photocopying prisoners’ letters over fears that the paper on which they were written had been soaked in new psychoactive substances.
While it is true that it is more difficult for jails to intercept drugs that are brought into institutions by crooked officers, it should not be beyond the wit of prison authorities to clamp down on the methods outlined above. While the problem appears to be particularly acute in the UK where prisons have suffered a string of deep cuts to their budgets over recent years, drugs remain alarmingly easy to get hold of in jails across Europe. The fact that this has been allowed to go on for so long raises serious questions about governments’ commitment to solving the problem. The sad truth of the matter is there are no votes in passing new legislation aimed at improving the welfare of prisoners, despite the fact that their number is made up predominantly of society’s most vulnerable. As a consequence, it looks likely that inmates will be left able to seek solace in some of the cheapest and nastiest street drugs available.
While removing drugs from prisons might not be a vote winner, failing to do so inflicts much harm on prison populations and society as a whole. Far from making inmates more manageable while they’re behind bars, there is evidence that substances such as Spice increase violence in jails. Warning that synthetic cannabinoids are behind an explosion of deaths and bullying in jails, Public Health England warned earlier this month that prisoners are twice as likely to be addicted to substances such as Spice when they leave prison compared to when they arrived. This means our jails are routinely turning out offenders who have become addicted to a substance renowned for leaving its users in a “zombie-like” state. It goes without saying that these ex-prisoners will likely be unable to make any sort of contribution to society on their release, and will in many cases end up committing new offences in order to feed their habits, inevitably leading to them being thrown back behind bars sooner rather than later. It is in everybody’s interest that the endemic drug use that has been allowed to grow unchecked inside our jails is tackled sooner rather than later, but with few governments willing to spend money on such an electorally unpopular cause, substances such as Spice will likely continue to undermine the effectiveness of our prison system for the foreseeable future.