The scourge of synthetic drugs in prisons is “completely out of control”, a watchdog has warned.
An epidemic of psychoactive substance use in jails has become “the new normal”, according to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
Signs are also emerging that the impact of the drugs is spreading to the immigration detention estate and bail hostels.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found inmates are dying preventable deaths, particularly as a result of alarming levels of drug misuse behind bars.
Publishing her annual report for 2017-18, acting PPO Elizabeth Moody highlighted the impact of psychoactive substances (PS).
These are drugs formerly known as “legal highs” such as Spice, which have been identified as a major factor behind the safety crisis that has hit much of the prisons estate in England and Wales.
Ms Moody said: “It’s completely out of control now in prisons – it’s so readily available.
“Prisons are struggling with the consequences of bad batches of PS which can result in simultaneous multiple collapses of prisoners, unsustainable demand on prison resources, ambulances queuing up at the prison gate and, all too often, death.
“This destructive epidemic of PS use has become the ‘new normal’ in prisons.”
Ms Moody called for a national strategy to tackle the problem as jails are struggling to stop the substances getting in and reduce demand for them.
In a separate report published on Thursday, the Independent Monitoring Board for HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire raised concerns about the availability and use of psychoactive substances.
It said: “Two prisoners in segregation set themselves on fire following Spice inhalation, sustaining life-threatening injuries. There have been a number of examples of prisoners debilitated by Spice on every wing.”
The Ombudsman also raised concerns about the number of deaths it investigates in immigration removal centres and approved premises in which the drugs have played at least some part.
Approved premises, previously known as probation and bail hostels, hold individuals who require additional support and supervision in the community following release from prison or while on bail or court orders.
The review said that while the widespread use of psychoactive substances in the prison estate is well-documented, the probation service needs to address the implications for the approved premises estate.
It added: “We are concerned practice in APs in relation to PS, especially in relation to testing, risks lagging behind that in prison.”
The Ombudsman has continued to see a significant number of deaths where illicit drug use played a role.
These include accidental or deliberate overdoses, suicides precipitated by drug-related mood changes or in response to drug-related debts and bullying, and heart attacks and respiratory failure in apparently fit individuals.
Substances involved in deaths also include heroin, cocaine and illicitly traded prescription medicines.
Ms Moody said: “The ease with which prisoners are apparently able to obtain these drugs in prison is truly alarming.
“A further concern is that staff too often tell us that they had no idea a prisoner was using illicit drugs before he was found dead in his cell.”
The Ombudsman also:
– Highlighted continuing concern over self-harm in jails, with a “marked increase” in incidents of cutting and scratching.
– Criticised the absence of a strategy to deal with the rising number of elderly and infirm prisoners.
– Disclosed that it had investigated two separate deaths of 17-year-olds at secure children’s homes.
– Cited a number of individual cases including the death of a 28-year-old foreign national at an immigration removal centre who was found hanging after staff decided his distress was due to toothache.
In 2017-18, the PPO started investigations into 316 deaths in total, a 12% decrease on the previous year. The majority (93%) were prisoner deaths.
The Ombudsman received 4,790 complaints, a 4% fall on the previous 12 months.
Mark Day, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This disturbing report paints a bleak picture of a prison system where people are dying needlessly, and where lessons clearly set out by the Ombudsman are not being learned.”
A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “The best way to keep staff and inmates safe is to keep drugs out of prisons.
“That is why we are spending an extra £40 million on safety and security measures including X-ray scanners, drug-detection dogs, better perimeter searches and phone-blocking technology.
“In addition, we’re tackling the criminal gangs that smuggle drugs into prisons by investing an additional £14 million each year to cut off their ability to do business.”