An “alarming” tripling in the death toll from ‘legal highs’ in prisons has seen 58 inmates lose their lives in incidents related to the drugs in less than three years, the Prisons Ombudsman has revealed.
Nigel Newcomen said that between June 2013 and January 2016 there were 58 fatalities where the prisoner was known, or strongly suspected, to have been using legal highs before their death.
The toll of 58 deaths in 30 months was three times higher than the previous figure of 19 legal high-related deaths, recorded over a similar length of time between April 2012 and September 2014.
“The statistics are alarming,” Mr Newcomen told an audience at Newbold Revel Prison Service College in Warwickshire, “And go up every time I give one of these talks.”
Prisoners, he said, were dying from legal high-related murders, as well as psychotic episodes and suicides triggered by the drugs, which are known officially as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).
“I am clear,” said Mr Newcomen, “That NPS have been a game-changer in terms of reducing safety in prison. Our work on NPS has added to the widespread concern that these substances pose serious risks to safety in prison, not least the risk of fatalities.”
In a frank admission of how the authorities are struggling to deal with the legal highs trade in prisons, Mr Newcomen added: “I and my staff are not experts on NPS. Nor is expertise all that easy to find. NPS are made up of a wide array of relatively new and regularly changing substances, for which testing is still in its infancy.”
Mr Newcomen’s strongly-worded speech is a further indication of the chaos being caused in prisons by legal highs, which the Government controversially banned in May. It also comes a day a day after Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced a nationwide programme of “pioneering new tests” for legal highs in prisons, which she said would provide staff with “more powers to stem the flow of these appalling new drugs.”
The Howard League for Penal Reform, however, immediately called this “a misguided attempt to punish drugs out of prisons,” and said it risked causing “more deaths and more mayhem” in a situation characterised by a December report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons which warned that legal highs were now “the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system.”
In particular synthetic cannabinoids known as ‘Spice’ or ‘Mamba’ have been causing havoc.
With their precise chemical formula being changed constantly by back street manufacturers, their effects are wildly unpredictable.
They have rendered some prisoners violently psychotic towards warders or fellow inmates, and had dangerously toxic effect on others – to the extent that in some areas ambulances have to be called to legal high-related incidents in a prison so frequently that the outside community has suffered from a shortage of paramedics. Inmates have nicknamed the ambulances that arrive at the prison gates ‘mambulances’.
This difficulty in detecting legal highs has made them easier to smuggle into jails than other drugs. This in turn has added to the problems of their unpredictability, because many prisoners switch to them in jail because of their greater availability, despite never having tried them and having no idea what will happen when they take them.
Confirming previous reports that some inmates are being coerced or persuaded into becoming ‘Spice pigs’ to test new batches of drugs, Mr Newcomen said: “There are cases of prisoners being given ‘spiked’ cigarettes by others who want to test new batches of NPS, as a way of gauging the effect before taking it themselves.
“In other cases, prisoners have even been used as unwitting NPS guinea pigs, sometimes just for the amusement of onlookers.”
Prisons dealers have also been using increasingly sophisticated tactics, including using drones to drop packages of legal highs to inmates.
With legal highs cheap to buy on the outside, and easy to sell for a high price on the inside, said Mr Newcomen, “In custody the potential profits to be made from NPS make them attractive to organised and semi-organised crime. These features compound the difficulty of reducing supply and demand for NPS in prisons.”
Detailing how inmates were now dying in legal high-related incidents, Mr Newcomen said 39 of the 58 newly revealed fatalities were “self-inflicted: some involved psychotic episodes potentially resulting from NPS. For others, NPS use or associated drug debts appeared to exacerbate vulnerability triggering suicide and self-harm.”
Two deaths, he said were murders: “Both involving prisoners killed by a punch from another prisoner. In one instance, the victim had links to NPS. In the other, the perpetrator was linked to NPS.”
Five deaths were the result of drug poisoning.
Legal highs, said Mr Newcomen, could also hasten the fatal effects of underlying health concerns. Nine of the 58 deaths were classified as natural cause deaths where the deceased was thought to have been an NPS user at the time of death.
In three further deaths, the cause of death could not be confirmed, but legal highs could not be ruled out as a possible cause.
Citing graphic examples of how legal highs could increase levels of bullying and violence in jails, Mr Newcomen said: “The use of NPS often results in prisoners getting into debt with prison drug dealers. This in turn creates the potential for increased self-harm or suicide among the vulnerable, as well as adding hugely to security and control problems.”
Outlining the new legal high testing programme, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said that after successful trials in 34 jails, “mandatory testing for killer drugs which have flooded prisons will begin from next week.”
The programme, it was claimed, would make the UK Prison Service a “world leader in testing for designer drugs like Spice and Mamba,” and ensure that English and Welsh jails “test for more dangerous substances than any country in the world.”
Ms Truss said: “I am determined to do all I can to make our prisons places of safety and reform. Today's decision gives governors and staff more powers to combat this threat and stem the flow of these appalling new drugs.”
Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, however: “The rising death toll in prisons shames the nation and underlines the urgent need for reform.
“It is disappointing, therefore, that the new Secretary of State for Justice’s first major announcement is a misguided attempt to punish drugs out of prisons – a policy that has signally failed for many years.
“Mandatory drug testing has been used for more than a decade. It hasn’t stopped drugs getting into prisons, but it has inflated the market and made them more lucrative to sell inside.
“More than one million days of additional punishment have been imposed on prisoners in the last six years, for a range of misdemeanours including drug use. This approach has only succeeded in creating a downward spiral, pushing people into deeper currents of crime and exacerbating overcrowding.”
She added: “Action needs to be taken to deal with drugs in prisons, but getting it wrong by doing the wrong thing only risks making it worse and could cause more deaths and more mayhem.
“Solving the problems in our overcrowded prisons requires imaginative thinking and bold action to stop throwing so many people into these failing institutions.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies