Mary Dejevsky: We could keep drugs out of prison if we wanted to

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The Independent Online

There are three phenomena of the British world c.2008 that I find unfathomable to the point of disbelieving fury. The first is the fatalism with which my fellow countrymen have resigned themselves to their losses from the economic downturn. Why are prudent savers not laying siege to the speculators' palaces and smashing the graven images of capitalism?

The second is the persistence of mixed wards even in some of our newest, glitziest hospitals. It is 12 years since Tony Blair – then Leader of the Opposition – expressed amazement that such indignity was still possible. Was it, he asked, beyond the wit of the Government and the health administrators to deal with the problem? Oh yes, to their eternal shame, it was.

And the third, right up there with the other two, is the lily-livered acceptance by almost every authority in the land that drugs in prison are an immutable fact of life. It may indeed be, as yesterday's report by a think-tank called the UK Drug Policy Commission concluded bleakly, that the drug trade has remained "extremely resilient" to everything the Government has thrown at it in recent years. But you – sorry, I – would have thought that prison is the one point at which the whole sad chain of exploitation and misery could be broken. Is there not here a captive constituency for treatment?

Of course, such a sentiment is itself defeatist. It would be consoling to believe that the country's borders could be hermetically sealed against illegal drugs – as against illegal bush-meat, black-market firearms and everything else that threatens the public good. But we know that is not possible. Ditto the level of policing that would convince everyone, from kingpins to petty street traders, that they should pack up and leave.

But even if improvements could be made in both these areas – and I'm sure they could – there would still be the deserted coves and private airfields; concealed cannabis factories in private houses, and would-be drug mules ready to risk their lives in quest of a pathetically small fortune. And when you consider the figures assembled by the UK Drug Policy Commission, you almost wonder whether it might not be better simply to abandon the field to the traffickers. The value of their illegal trade in Britain is estimated at £5.3bn. The Government currently spends a total of £1.5bn trying to combat it, plus the diverse costs of drug-related crime, for which the most recent estimates – surely underestimates – come in at £4bn. The taxpayer thus seems to be spending as much to fight the traffickers as the traffickers are earning. Clearly there is much that cannot be done.

Keeping drugs out of prison, though, is surely something that could be done. At least half of all inmates – some suggest the proportion is much higher – are in prison as a direct result of drugs, either because they have been caught trafficking or, more likely, because they have turned to crime to feed their habit. Quite rightly, the Government sees treatment as a key to reducing both crime and the prison population. But if treatment is to work, it must be properly funded, and the prisons must be part of the solution – which at present, patently, they are not.

Some 55 per cent of prisoners in England are dependent on drugs, and a greater proportion in Scottish jails. Ex-prisoners suggest it is far more. Yet, with or without treatment programmes, a lively drugs trade flourishes inside, facilitated by mobile phones, crooked warders, misguided visitors and such imaginative solutions as stuffed tennis balls lobbed over walls to order. Nor has deregulation supplied an answer. Why did the contracts not stipulate that new, private, prisons should be drug-free? For the same reason, I assume, that brand-new hospitals could operate mixed wards.

Alas, too many people have an interest in keeping the prison trade going: rank-and-file prisoners, hungry for anything to break the boredom in the absence of more productive diversion; those inmates who earn money or favours while inside; warders and managers who fear mayhem from overcrowding and like their charges compliant.

Earlier this month, the Government announced plans to spend £80m on technology to block mobile phones in prisons and "search" visitors electronically. Which may be a welcome sign that the problem is finally being addressed. I fear, though, that without the political and managerial will – the "wit" Tony Blair mentioned in relation to hospitals – the prison drug market will be as lively in a year's time as it is now. I just hope that by then the public indignation might also be greater.