Revealed: New super-strength opioids have already claimed lives behind bars, as prisons ‘not ready’ for influx

Exclusive: ‘Something potentially very dangerous is happening’ and ‘past experience suggests we’ve moved too slow,’ warns major treatment service

Andy Gregory
Saturday 09 March 2024 15:59 GMT
Nitazenes have been discovered in not just heroin but illicit vapes, diazepam and codeine pills
Nitazenes have been discovered in not just heroin but illicit vapes, diazepam and codeine pills (iStock)

New super-strength synthetic opioids 250 times stronger than heroin have already claimed lives in British prisons, The Independent can reveal, as experts warn that jails are not prepared for a feared influx of the deadly drugs.

Drug treatment services have been sounding the alarm for months over fears the potent substances, known as nitazenes, could flood British drugs markets as the Taliban’s opium ban restricts heroin supplies, causing a further spike in drug deaths already at record levels.

With inspectors and MPs warning it is “inevitable” the drugs will find their way into prisons if prevalent on the outside, frontline experts told this publication that, with the drugs market on prison wings currently “as bad as it’s ever been”, nitazenes “could take hold very quickly”.

Urging the government to draw up rapid plans to protect inmates, they warned that “we may already have moved too slowly” – as data obtained by The Independent reveals the substances have already infiltrated prisons, with fatal consequences.

Of the 15 non-intentional drug deaths confirmed in prisons in England and Wales in 2022, two deaths in June at HMP Lewes in East Sussex were caused by overdoses of isotonitazene, a substance 250 times stronger than heroin, according to data obtained under freedom of information laws.

While these are the first publicly confirmed nitazene-related deaths behind bars, the prisons ombudsman is still awaiting the death certificate in six of nine confirmed drug deaths in 2023 – and experts warn most coroners are still failing to test for the potent new opiates. A further 19 deaths are still awaiting classification.

Raising questions over the efficacy of the government’s monitoring of the drugs’ prevalence in prisons, this publication can also reveal that the drugs were only detected once – in November – since a private firm was handed £4.7m in April to forensically test prison seizures for nitazenes and other drugs in April.

That is despite the National Crime Agency reporting 65 nitazene-related deaths in the wider community in the last six months of 2023 alone, and HM chief prisons inspector Charlie Taylor telling The Independent it is “inevitable” the drugs will find their way into prisons if prevalent in communities.

Lethal synthetic opioids have been detected in the UK in heroin, diazepam, cannabis and illicit vapes (Getty)

“Prisons are so overburdened, so close to the edge with understaffing and huge pressures on the health services provided within prisons already, that there’s almost nil chance they’ll be able to prepare for – let alone cope with – a sudden influx of nitazenes and rising deaths,” said Martin Powell, of the Transform Drugs Foundation.

Warning the government that “something potentially very dangerous is happening, [and] the speed of reaction is our responsibility now”, Mike Trace – chief executive of the Forward Trust, which provides drug and alcohol services in 25 prisons – said: “Past experience would suggest we’ve moved too slow.”

“Nitazenes are arriving when the drug market is probably at its highest in prisons,” said Mr Trace, whose organisation issued a national alert to its staff about the substances last month. “The culture on every wing is: ‘Who are the dealers, what are they bringing in?’ The vast majority of people are involved in some way.

“If there’s a new drug that comes along then, because you have this dominant drug-use, drug-dealing culture, it could take hold very quickly.”

Urging officials to do “rapid preparatory work” to scale up testing and early warning capabilities, he added: “Usually with new drug trends in prisons, they come to senior attention too late. So when we know of something that could lead to a lot of deaths, we’ve got to get ahead of the normal process of learning.”

‘It’s a bit like Covid preparedness – we’re at that point, it’s unavoidable,’ warns one charity boss of the synthetic opioid challenge (G4S/PA)

The prison service is part of a new cross-government taskforce on synthetic opioids which meets monthly, and the Ministry of Justice aims to roll out scanners capable of detecting even small traces of drugs in all public prisons by April.

However, experts warn that the understaffing crisis means security processes are not always followed, with some corrupt staff smuggling drugs into prisons themselves. Last year, so few mandatory drug tests were carried out in prisons that the government redacted the numbers from their annual data release.

Part of the danger posed by nitazenes is that they have been discovered in not just heroin but illicit vapes, diazepam and codeine pills. But in the sole instance last year when nitazenes were discovered in a prison seizure, the government claimed the sample was deemed to be too dangerous for the private laboratory to handle – and it was therefore not tested for any other substances.

“What we don’t want is [to only discover nitazenes are] a problem because there’s a massive influx of deaths. That’s the only way we really know now,” said Martin Blakeborough, chief executive of treatment provider Kaleidoscope.

The Prison Governors Association told The Independent that while prison bosses are aware of the threat of nitazenes, synthetic opioids are one of many risks and competing priorities that they have to manage on a daily basis.

All police officers already carry naloxone to administer to overdose victims in the community (PA)

Describing the threat of nitazenes as “yet again another example of why there’s got to be sustained investment in prisons”, Tory justice committee chair Sir Bob Neill warned that already “patchy” prison health provision is being exacerbated by overcrowding and “often very poor” conditions, adding: “Anything like this arising will make it even worse.”

If the drugs do begin infiltrating prisons en masse, a vital tool will be the lifesaving overdose-reversal drug naloxone. The government has announced it would permit and train prison staff who volunteer to administer nasal naloxone sprays – but without any pay reward. As a result, Inside Time, the newspaper for prisoners and detainees, reported this week that the Prison Officers Association had urged its members not to volunteer for this “additional task, which carries career-threatening risks”, warning that doing so could jeopardise pay negotiations.

But Mr Blakeborough suggested prisoners themselves could be trained to administer nasal naloxone to protect their cellmates from overdose, in an unintended benefit of the overcrowding leaving inmates cramped together in one-person cells.

Health provision is already ‘patchy’ in prisons, warns Sir Bob Neill (Getty)

“We don’t want people on their own injecting drugs but it’s no use having someone with them who can’t do anything because the reaction time is too slow. Are you going to dob your mate in that they’ve injected drugs? No, not until they’ve gone blue and even then, you might be nervous about it.”

“Prisons have to have an adult conversation,” he said. “We can go into every prison and provide that training to people who use drugs, you don’t even need the prison officers to do it.”

He added: “They’ve got to do something now. Let’s look at naloxone now, training prisoners up now. It’s a bit like Covid preparedness – we’re at that point, it’s unavoidable. So let’s make sure we make prisons as safe as possible.”

A government spokesperson said: “We know the threat synthetic opioids present which is why we’re part of a cross-government taskforce set up to tackle their prevalence in society, including prisons.

“We are also rolling out drug-free units and hiring dedicated staff to help more prisoners beat addiction and into recovery, while our £100m security crackdown is helping keep more drugs out of our jails.”

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