A spokeswoman for the Prison Service confirmed yesterday that it was considering compulsory checks because it had to be "vigilant" in case officers were smuggling drugs into prisons.
Formal proposals for urine tests are likely by the summer. Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, has already said they were "an interesting idea" and a private prison service conference on drugs in Birmingham 12 days ago was told that ministers support them.
But the implication that officers are dealing in drugs has infuriated jail staff. David Evans, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said: "My members would react violently if this went ahead. It is a tremendous slight."
Growing concern about drugs in jails is highlighted in a report to the Home Secretary by Rosemary Wool, director of prison health care. About two-thirds of all prisoners use or have used drugs, she says.
She also points to a growing health crisis in jails, with TB and hepatitis on the increase and huge numbers of mentally ill people entering prison. And she warns that a combination of rising numbers and cuts in spending is creating a "very threatening situation".
Under Mr Howard's "prison works" policy jail population has risen to a record high of 52,000 this month. Unpublished Treasury forecasts predict that a further 35,000 will be incarcerated at a cost of pounds 500m if the Home Secretary's proposals for tougher sentences, due this week, are enacted.
Last night, opponents of Mr Howard seized on Dr Wool's report. Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, NAPO, said: "What we are seeing is jails filling up with addicts and the sick who are sad rather than bad. The public should be very worried. TB, HIV and hepatitis aren't confined by prison walls."Reuse content