The first official figures confirm fears of a drugs crisis in Britain's jails and add to concerns over the ability of the Prison Service to control the problem, about the costs and, crucially, about the spread of Aids through shared needles.
The Independent has learnt that the drug-testing programme in seven jails around the country revealed that most prisoners who tested positive were taking cannabis, with only a small number taking harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine or tranquillisers. However, cannabis stays in the bloodstream considerably longer than the harder drugs, which may distort the findings.
Last month Judge Stephen Tumim reported that 80 per cent of the women in Styal prison in Cheshire were abusing hard drugs such as heroin. Fears that up to 100 of them were sharing needles to inject heroin, cocaine and crack, prompted the judge to recommend a needle-exchange scheme A recent inquest into the deaths of two drug addicts at Wandsworth jail in London was told that up to half of all new inmates had drug problems.
The Government eventually aims to start tests in all 133 jails, carrying out about 60,000 a year. But one pilot scheme at Holloway prison is already in trouble as the women prisoners, believing urine testing to be "degrading", have refused to comply.
About 12 to 15 per cent of prisoners in the other pilot jails - Wayland, Bristol, Stoke Heath, Feltham, Pentonville, Lindholme, and Wakefield - refused or were obstructive.
Yesterday, however, probation officers questioned whether the money spent on a testing programme could not be better spent on a massive expansion of treatment and prevention programmes.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, estimated that the costs of testing and of imposing longer jail terms on the projected 30,000 inmates likely to test positive, could run into tens of millions of pounds.
"Ministers are locked into punishment as a solution. This flies in the face of all advice from drug agencies and even from the Department of Health. It does nothing to stop drugs getting in in the first place and the costs will be prohibitive," he said.
The Prison Service said that any inmate who tested positive was offered counselling. A spokeswoman added: "We are about to launch a comprehensive drugs strategy which will cover treatment and control as well as testing."
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