Legal highs in prison so widespread 'ambulance services struggle to cope'

Prisons watchdog warns of proliferation of substances such as Mamba and Spiece, which mimic effects of cannabis

Nigel Morris
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 18 December 2015 01:59 GMT
A catapult used to send contraband into a prison
A catapult used to send contraband into a prison (PA)

The use of so-called “legal highs” in jails has become so widespread that ambulance services are struggling to cope with emergency calls to treat offenders suffering side effects, the prisons watchdog has warned.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick raised the alarm over the proliferation across the prison estate of substances such as Mamba and Spice, which are chemically designed to mimic the effects of cannabis.

He said the spread of new psychoactive substances behind bars – including women’s and young offenders’ jails – was the most serious threat to safety and security of prisons in England and Wales.

The trade in legal highs has become so profitable that some offenders are deliberately getting rearrested while out on licence so they can smuggle drugs worth thousands of pounds back inside, Mr Hardwick said.

He accused ministers of being too slow to combat the “real and current” threat posed by legal highs and added: “We need ministers to actually lead a process of keeping patterns of drug use under review and making sure there is an adequate response.

“Otherwise we think there is a danger that complacency will creep into the system.”

Cheshire Police raise awareness of dangerous legal highs

In a review of drug abuse in prisons over the last year, he said some jails have called ambulances so often that “excessive demand” was being placed on the emergency services. During one episode at Wealstun prison, West Yorkshire, every available paramedic crew in the area was tending inmates for side effects which can include blackouts and fits.

Mr Hardwick remarked that call-outs had become so common in some jails that offenders had coined the nickname “mambulance”.

He disclosed that criminal gangs are adopting increasingly ingenious way of smuggling legal highs into prisons, throwing tennis balls, dead birds and small animals stuffed with drugs over perimeter fences. Catapults and drones have also been used to drop drugs in prisons.

Smuggling operations are also becoming more sophisticated, with gangs launching potatoes over fences to test where packages would land using the help of a “spotter” inside the prison.

Mr Hardwick said the trade in synthetic cannabis was booming because of the low risk – it is very difficult to detect – and the huge profits involved.

The substance can even be sprayed on to paper and then smoked. Others are smuggling legal highs into jails hidden in their bodies.

Mr Hardwick said: “Debt associated with synthetic cannabis use sometimes leads to violence and prisoners refusing to leave their cells.”

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