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The new prison drug strategy

Russell Webster looks at the detail of the long awaited prison drug strategy

Earlier this month, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) published its new Prison Drugs Strategy.

There have, of course, always been drugs and drug misusers in prison but over the last six or seven years, with the advent of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), the best-known of which are synthetic forms of cannabis such as “Spice”, the problem has become much worse.

The use of NPS has been seen as one of the two critical components of the prison safety crisis (the other being the unprecedented cuts in staffing levels). As the new strategy puts it:

“The misuse of drugs contributes to a cycle of destruction and violence, leading to a reduced or unstable regime, which through unpredictability and lack of purpose can encourage prisons to turn to drugs and alcohol. The debts resulting from the supply, distribution and use of drugs is also a significant cause of violence, intimidation and self-harm across the estate, endangering both staff and other prisoners.”

The prison drug strategy has been developed to support and complement the main government Drug Strategy published in 2017 and is centred around the same three objectives of restricting supply, reducing demand building recovery.

The prison drug strategy adopt a “5P” approach with each of the three objectives focusing on five key areas:

  • People – that prisons have the right staff, with appropriate skills and support
  • Procedural – that prison processes are clear, fair and effective
  • Physical – that prison conditions are safe, clean, decent and promote well-being and recovery
  • Population – that prisoners have positive relationships and engage in constructive activities
  • Partnership – that all the organisations contributing to achieving our aims work together effectively.

Let’s look at three main objectives in a bit more detail.

Restricting supply

Readers will have seen Ministers talking about many of the initiatives to prevent drugs getting into prison. Recent funding has looked to upgrade and modernise security measures. In addition to the usual searches and dogs, the prison service is rolling out the use of x-ray scanners to detect internally concealed drugs and mobile phones and investing in new technology to prevent prisoners using mobile phones inside to organise drug supply. The service’s drug dogs have also been trained to detect New Psychoactive Substances and the strategy also directly mentions initiatives to combat staff corruption.

The strategy (implicitly) acknowledges that finding drugs in prison is a labour-intensive job and that reductions in staffing have had an impact. The strategy suggests that the main means of targeting searches for drugs will be prioritising prisoners who have failed Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT).

In terms of disrupting illicit trade, the strategy priorities the work of the HMPPS National Intelligence unit and its work with prisons, probation and police to proactively develop intelligence on offenders involved in the supply of drugs. The strategy also announces an investment of £1 million in a national digital categorisation service which will provide a wider range of informational male offenders come into prison, including those who may have the means to smuggle drugs, in order to support decisions about where their place and how the security risks they pose are managed. The new specialist financial crime unit has the powers to identify and freeze bank accounts linked to organised crime in prison.

Reducing demand

The strategy sets out three primary areas of work within the objective of reducing demand:

A new incentives system to encourage prisoners to give up the use of drugs and engage with the positive activities available inside.
Providing opportunities for prisoners to engage in purposeful activity and engage in positive change, and developing the positive influence of families and peers.

To incentivise prisoners not to use drugs, the prison service has developed the Identified Substance User (ISU) and Incentivised Substance Free Living (ISFL) concepts. The ISU approach aims to help prisons respond effectively when an individual fails a drug test by offering support and treatment to those who want to abstain and clear guidance about sanctions for repeat offenders who will not engage with support. ISFL wings will allow prisoners who demonstrate, through regular voluntary testing, that they are not misusing drugs to experience better living conditions.

The strategy makes a bold bid to describe the opportunities in prison of the new Education and Employment Strategy with great use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) and more purposeful activity in general. Of course, the problem at the moment, graphically described every week in the Prison Inspectorate's reports, is that the idea of our prisons being models of constructive and purposeful activity is mainly aspirational, with prisoners often locked up in their cells for many more hours than they should be.

The strategy also makes mention of a new-ish (May 2018) peer support toolkit which is supporting and facilitating the development of peer support across the prison estate with the aim of increased positive self-identity, employability skills for the peer worker and a positive impact on the attitudes, engagement and behaviour of the recipients.


As has been the case with so many things over the last decade, the resources for drug treatment in prison have been cut. Nevertheless, there are a number of initiatives trying to improve treatment inside, driven by last year’s NHS England’s new Service Specification for Integrated Substance Misuse Treatment Services in prisons which aim to bring greater focus to treatment of prisoners using NPS as well as those dependent on heroin and/or cocaine.

The strategy acknowledges that different drugs are more popular with different groups of prisoners in different prisons and that prison governors will need to design their substance misuse treatment to meet local needs.

The strategy also highlights the growing abuse of prescription and pharmacy drugs and sets out new approaches to ensure that this medication doesn’t get diverted into recreational use.

Finally, the strategy raises the very long-standing problem that although large numbers of prisoners do take the opportunity of that being in prison provides to tackle their dependence on drugs, less than a third of these continue their treatment on release. The strategy sets out a plan to try and improve continuity of care.


In my view, this is a thorough and sensible drug strategy for prisons. However, whether the prison service in its current state can deliver the range of activities set out in its pages is open to question. We must wait and see – with fingers and toes tightly crossed.