The true face of the drug epidemic ravaging UK prisons

The true face of the drug epidemic ravaging UK prisons

‘I died three times’ — Record levels of drug use, violence and overcrowding are turning prisons into a toxic environment, with riots set to continue unless sweeping reforms are made.

Looking up and down Shaun’s arms is like reading a book: they carry scars and marks that tell a story. The remnants of surgery, the prison tattoos, the razor blade scars. Each maps out nearly two decades of hard drug use and multiple stints locked up inside. With his weathered fingers shaking slightly, he picks up a pack of post-it notes from the desk in front of us, and gingerly rips off a small corner, avoiding eye contact as he does so.

“That would be about four spliffs, you’d get about £20 for that on the inside,” he says, holding up the small yellow piece of paper. “They spray cockroach killer on court documents, and mail them in. It’s like smoking a regular spliff or some Spice, but it wears off much quicker.”

Think you’d never consider smoking paper laced with insecticide? Now imagine spending 23 hours a day stuck in your cell, confronted with record levels of violence and bullying each time you step out of your door. Something that could help you forget all of that doesn’t sound so unattractive now, does it?



Shaun is sitting in the boss’s chair at SUIT, an award-winning substance abuse support service based in Wolverhampton. Nestled down a small alley just around the corner from a bustling shopping street, SUIT works with many ex-offenders like Shaun who have seen firsthand the drug crisis wreaking havoc in British prisons. Shaun’s experience is typical of the toxic situation prisoners encounter when they’re put behind bars.

Shaun is no model citizen. Now 37, he spent nearly two decades using heroin and crack, and has served multiple prison terms since he was first sent away to a young offenders institute aged just 15 on a Section 18 assault charge. “I aspired to be like my Dad, with his reputation around Wolverhampton as a fighter,” Shaun explains. He fought and burgled houses to feed his addiction, but he became notorious in the area for smash and grab robberies on local busses.

But Shaun’s latest trip to prison nearly ended his life – in fact, he died and was resuscitated three times after overdosing on the former ‘legal high’ Spice. “Nobody knows the long term effects of Spice, but I’m getting flashbacks of the electrocutions [to resuscitate me],” he says.


Record prisoner numbers in the context of funding cuts and reduced staffing levels have seen violence and drug use in British prisons reach record levels – and riots like the 12-hour takeover of HMP Birmingham in December 2016 are on the rise.

Shaun was released in December 2016 after being in prison for two years for threatening to kill a manager at a local Tesco. “It’s a big shock to the system, being on the outside again,” he says.

Since he was released nearly a month ago, Shaun has been paying regular visits to SUIT. He’s staying clean, while support workers are helping him put together a personal action plan. He’s grappling with mental health issues, blood-borne viruses and a long rap sheet, but he’s determined to put his life back together, so he can be a father to his young daughters once again.

But it’s no easy task. With each spell in prison, Shaun has been put through more traumatic experiences. Drugs have always been readily available to Shaun inside, but it wasn’t until his most recent trip that he was confronted with Spice. To attract new customers and help relieve the boredom, prisoners are offered the ‘five drag challenge’ by fellow inmates – take five puffs on a Spice joint and you get it for free, but inmates often pass out and are frequently hospitalised in doing so. That’s how Shaun ended up overdosing and nearly dying.



For Sunny Dhadley, a SUIT manager and an ex-offender himself, Shaun’s situation seems typical of many people he sees coming out of prison. “The criminal justice system doesn’t just stop people growing and learning to integrate with society,” he says, “it leads to a lack of fair opportunities on release.”

“People leave prison without without the skills, knowledge or confidence to move on with their lives – so they often end up reoffending. When we meet people after prison, there are often a whole range of complex issue that we help them work through, not just substance abuse but homelessness, unemployment and physical and mental health issues.”

With the prison population now at a record 85,583, in many ways, Shaun suggests that high levels of drug use is a blessing in disguise for overstretched prison staff, as it sedates and distracts prisoners. “They’re the ones bringing the Mamba [also knowns as Spice, a synthetic cannabis substitute] in,” he tells me. “In some respects it makes their lives easier, but they’re just passing the workload on to the NHS.” In some prisons, there are up to five hospitalisations per day due to Spice/Mamba, with visits from the emergency services so regular that ambulances have become known as ‘Mamba-lances’. Arrests for staff smuggling drugs to inmates is an alarmingly common occurrence, and they’re just the ones getting caught.

While a majority of prisoners have a history of substance abuse, 8% of men in prison in England and Wales now develop a drug problem inside, having not had one before jail, which rises to 14% in Bedford prison, the scene of recent riots and 16% in Hindley, Manchester.

Senior figures in the prison service blame rising violence and drug use on the budget reductions and wild swings in government policy since the Conservatives took power in 2010. Incoming Justice Secretary Liz Truss’s prison White Paper in November 2016 promised major reform to defuse the volatile situation in prisons across the country and clamp down on drug use, with increased staffing levels, a mandatory drug testing regime and improved drug interdiction methods, such as sniffer dogs.

Dean, another former prisoner, is lounging in his chair. Like many of the people who attend SUIT, he has seen inside more than one prison around the country. Now 35, Dean has been in and out of prison five or six times since he was first sent down for affray at 18. After being released in summer 2016, he has been able to confront his substance abuse and make considerable progress through SUIT’s programme. He’s now looking for work.



Dean is skeptical that the government or anyone else can end drug use in prisons. “The only way you’d change that would be to put a dome over them, have non-contact visits and totally seal them off from the outside world,” he says. He claims that it’s mainly corrupt officers who bring drugs in and saw huge blocks of Spice and other drugs that would have been impossible to bring in with drones or for prisoners to smuggle any other way.

After finally becoming sick of the addicts’ lifestyle, crime and the revolving door of prison, Dean used his last stretch inside to get himself clean. But he’s concerned about the culture shift that he’s seen inside, with staff increasingly powerless to tackle the rising violence and drug use. In the context of record numbers of assaults on staff and self-inflicted deaths by prisoners, he paints a picture of both inmates and staff totally demoralised.

“They’re so understaffed now that they can’t tackle it like they used to when there were a few thousand less prisoners,” Dean explains. “I went on four week remand in Hewell and everyone was just zombied. There was no humanity, it was like being in a psychiatric unit. No-one knew what day it was, people were getting bullied, robbed and beaten up. People would have a laugh by getting others to smoke a spliff of Spice until they keeled over.”


“You go to prison to be punished, but you’re not just being punished by the system,” he continues, “you’re being punished by the people around you, by drugs, violence, the lack of activity and not enough staff – it all rolls into one.”

After nearly two decades going in and out of prison for Shaun and Dean, they’ve finally had enough. They’re in their 30s, and have realised they can’t go on leading this lifestyle. With SUIT’s support, they’re working through their problems and hoping for something better.

Sunny, Dean and Shaun all agree that the prison system is broken. You’re supposed to serve your time, pay back your debt to society and come out posing less of a danger to those around you – or at least, that’s the idea. But that’s not’s what’s happening today. Sunny argues that prison must be a last resort, and that resources would be better spent on prevention and support services in the community, rather than an increasing prison population.

But Dean has a better idea. “I would love to be a prison director,” he explains, with a cheeky smile. “I’ve seen both sides, so if you put me in charge, I would really make a difference.”

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