Proportion of UK prisoners with drug problem doubles in five years – study

Frances Perraudin
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The proportion of prisoners developing a drug problem in custody has more than doubled in the past five years, research suggests.

The analysis of survey data from HM Inspectorate of Prisons by the thinktank Reform found that the proportion of inmates who reported developing a drug problem in prison rose 8.4 percentage points to almost 15% between 2013-14 and 2018-19.

The study found that much of the estate was not equipped to disrupt the drug supply and that security standards varied from prison to prison.

It pointed to the example of HMP Nottingham, a category B prison with high levels of violence and drug use. The institution received a body scanner after being given the most serious warning from the prison’s inspectorate, while HMP Bedford, which received the same warning, did not.

Last year the then prisons minster, Rory Stewart, said the prisons system had been unprepared for the arrival of new psychoactive drugs such as spice and had been playing catch-up ever since.

Spice, the most widely used psychoactive substance, is a liquid that can be sprayed on paper, which is then ripped up, added to roll-up cigarettes and smoked. It has been smuggled into prisons after being sprayed on children’s drawings and letters.

The research by Reform found prisons in poor condition, overcrowded and struggling to retain experienced staff. The report argued that the use of short-term prison sentences was counterintuitive and contributed to an overcrowding in the prison population.

Analysis of official figures showed the use of community sentences for minor offences had decreased 52% since 2010, despite evidence that they are more effective and around a ninth of the annual cost of prison. The thinktank recommended the Ministry of Justice consider banning or reducing the use of short custodial sentences.

Aidan Shilson-Thomas, a Reform researcher and the author of the report, said: “There must always be a place in prison for those who commit serious crimes. However, prison must also be an opportunity for inmates to change their behaviour.

“Stabilising the system means stemming the flow of drugs, reducing overcrowding, fixing the crumbling estate and improving officer retention. Its long-term sustainability requires a serious conversation about how many people we lock up and for how long. Failing to act will mean poorer social outcomes, more reoffending and ultimately huge costs to the taxpayer.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Illicit substances pose huge challenges in our prisons which is why we are investing £100m in airport-style security – including x-ray body scanners – to stop them getting in.

“This is part of our £2.75bn investment to make jails safer for offenders and staff, while working closely with healthcare providers to ensure prisoners have the support they need to live drug-free upon release.”