The UK prison drug problem

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
August 7, 2022

The issue of drug use is almost an age-old complexity, both in prison and out. In 2020/21, there were 21,931 reported instances in which drugs were found in prisons across England and Wales. Such incidents have more than doubled since 2016/17, when there were 10,666 reports. In 2019, the UK government published a ‘Prison Drugs Strategy’, outlining their plans to tackle “one of the biggest challenges facing our criminal justice system today”, the issue of drugs in UK prisons. Broken down, the ‘Prison Drugs Strategy’ approach is designed to focus on five key areas:

1.     People – correct staffing with appropriate skills and support pathways

2.     Procedural – prison procedure is clear, effective and fair

3.     Physical – conditions of prisons are clean, safe and enforce recovery and well-being

4.     Population – prisoners have positive relations and partake in activities that are constructive

5.     Partnership – all contributing organisations work together in the most effective way

The government state that the number of adults who were in treatment in prison for abusing drugs or alcohol was 60,254 in2015/166. In 2019/20, the figure fell to 52,891 and in 2020 to 2021, the figure fell again to 43,255. These figures reflect a positive decline signalling that the approach to tackle the prison drug problem is at least in some part working. Although it is worth noting that the figures are centred around how many prisoners are undergoing treatment, perhaps pessimistic but it may simply be that less prisoners who use drugs are seeking treatment and could be reflective of this rather than the decline in drug use.

A key challenge facing prison drug use is how the drugs get in to prisons. Many have seen the media footage of drones being used to drop drugs in to prisons, in the technological age, it’s harder to stop the flow of drugs. A press release by the UK government in 2017,announced a new squad had been formed to tackle the drone threat to prisons head on. Following this, in 2018 seven members of a ‘gang’ were sent to prison after being convicted for smuggling over £500,000 worth of drugs in to various prisons across the country. There is little doubt that these convictions are a positive step in tackling the issue of drugs in prison, there is a group of people who are now no longer able to smuggle drugs in to prisons and these convictions may act as a deterrent to other smugglers. However, these convictions come after the drugs have already been smuggled in to the prisons and assumably, consumed. The real problem is the underlying issue of addiction, this is somewhat approached in the aforementioned ‘Prison Drugs Strategy’, but this certainly does not go far enough.

The Forward Trust is a charity which focuses on rehabilitation programmes and in 1992 they established an intensive abstinence-based treatments in UK prisons, they since then they have become national leaders in the management of such complex services in the prison environment. They have steadily expanded their services for prisoners since then and provide motivational work, clinical services, group programmes, health and wellbeing and general advice. Chief Executive of the Forward Trust, Mike Trace said:
We know how to reduce drug demand in prisons and reoffending, but current policies continue to starve these proven strategies of funding and support, and preside over prison conditions that push prisoners towards drugs, not away.”                
This view that policy isn’t going far enough rings true in many aspects of prison reform and for something as instrumental to reoffending as addiction, more could and should certainly be done. Funding and implementing rehabilitation programmes is a positive step, alongside many more, in stemming the use of drugs in UK prisons.

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