30 Jan 2015

‘Prisons are awash with drugs of all types’

There is a growing crisis in British prisons with violence, self-harm and prisoner suicide on the rise. Blogger “Alex Cavendish”, who served time in six different prisons, believes he knows why.

Prisoners look towards a window in a cell in a wing of Norwich prison in a photograph taken in 2005.

“Alex Cavendish” is a pseudonym.

When I was sent to prison in early 2012 I was surprised that it wasn’t as violent as I expected. However, as I served my sentence – as a non-violent, first-timer in my 40s – I became aware that prisons were becoming much more dangerous places, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable inmates.

I think it was the increasingly availability of drugs on prison wings that first caught my attention. These came in various forms: illegal (heroin, cannabis), so-called “legal herbal highs” (mainly synthetic cannabinoids that can be smoked), and prescribed medication that has been bought – or bullied – out of other prisoners.

Ironically, mandatory drug testing (MDT), introduced in 1995, has encouraged the use of hard drugs. Cannabis stays in the system for up to 28 days, whereas heroin can be flushed out in less than 48 hours, thus reducing the risk of getting a positive test and facing serious punishment.

Watch Symeon Brown’s report on the security crisis behind bars:

At present, prisons have no test for “herbal highs”, so use of these toxic substances by prisoners has rocketed in the last few years. You only tend to see the impact of drugs in prison when a user is desperate for a fix: prisoners call it “clucking”.

Addicts start behaving in ways that are disorientated, even violent. Nothing else really matters other than feeding the addiction, so stealing from fellow prisoners or bullying becomes a way of keeping the habit under control.

Read: Prisoners on Instagram reveal security crisis behind bars

I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I write that our prisons are awash with drugs of all types and the prices inside jails are much higher than out on the street, so massive profits can be made.

The recent figures for seizures of drugs in prisons in England and Wales, released by the Ministry of Justice earlier this month, show that in 2013-14 there were 4,500 cases, a significant increase from 3,800 back in 2010-11.

Believe me, that statistic only represents the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg. Drug use in our prisons fuels debts to suppliers that most prisoners – earning £8 or £9 per week in typical jail jobs – can never hope to pay off during their sentences.


Debtors face unpalatable choices: beg family or friends for cash – usually paid back in home communities well away from the prison walls – or pressure loved ones to try to smuggle in small consignments of drugs during visits to help pay off their debts.

Or they can face savage punishment beatings from gang members, designed to act as a visible warning to other debtors of the consequences of trying to bilk the wing dealers. A few become what are known as “joeys” – usually younger inmates who effectively become slaves to their creditor. They are used to run errands, do dirty chores – and sometimes act as mobile drug “safes”, concealing dangerous quantities of drugs in their anuses throughout the day until the dealers need their stock.

Then they will be summoned to the dealer’s cell and forced to remove the packages in his presence. I’ve known a fair number of these vulnerable lads during my time inside, and it is a very demeaning and dangerous way of life.

Of course, the reality is that most drugs – whether legal or illegal – are not being brought into prisons in tiny wraps by family members during visits. Most substances – and the illicit mobile phones that enable dealers to keep in touch with outside suppliers – are smuggled in by corrupt members of staff, uniformed or civilian.

Occasionally one or two “bent screws” get caught and prosecuted, but there are many more across the system who are either making good money from contraband or else are being blackmailed by prisoners.

In short supply

So why have our prisons – and I’ve been in six of them – become more dangerous in recent years? In my experience, the main reason is the chronic shortage of frontline staff, including specialist security officers.

When wing staff are in short supply – sometimes one or two supervise a wing of 170 men – almost anything is possible, hidden away out of sight in cells and washrooms.

The scale of the cut in the number of prison officers is hotly disputed. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform there has been a 41 per cent reduction since 2010 – from 24,000 to 14,170 as of June 2014.

The Ministry of Justice claims that the real figure is closer to 27 per cent.

What is evident to any prisoner is that there are definitely fewer uniformed officers on duty in most prisons and that gang activity has become rife.

A recent recruitment drive to bring in additional staff has also led to an influx of inexperienced wing officers who can find it challenging to try to manage large numbers of difficult and sometimes dangerous men. In these conditions it’s not surprising that violence, self-harm and suicide by prisoners are on the rise.

“Alex Cavendish” blogs at Prison UK: An Insider’s View