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March 06, 2006

Drugs are endemic in British prisons, but how do they get there? Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham explains

Posted by Emily Kingham

Drug usage is rampant in British prisons. But how do drugs enter these supposedly secure institutions? Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison explains.

Drugs are endemic in prisons. No matter what the authorities do, drugs get into prisons. Most of the time, they get in on visits. A lot of users ask their visitors to bring "gear" in. Family members, friends, loved ones, even children, oblige. Prison staff know this and put a lot of effort into searching visitors as they enter prisons. Lovely, lolloping spaniels, or highly efficient sniffer dogs, are a familiar sight where I work.

Prison policy now is to call the police whenever a visitor is caught with drugs, which can end up with the visitor in court. Even if this doesn't happen, the visitor will be banned from the prison and the prisoner will be put on closed visits. If it's cannabis, the drug can be swallowed having been passed from the visitor's mouth to the prisoner's mouth during a kiss. Or they can be "bottled", inserted in the anus. God knows how prisoners manage that. Sometimes, staff bring in drugs. These can be officers or "civilian" staff. All staff are subject to random searches on entering the "establishment", as the prison is called once you're inside it. As with any institution staffed by human beings, the worst things can happen, people make mistakes, they are greedy.

But addiction for some can be insuperable. CARAT (Counselling Assessment Referral Advice Throughcare) is the biggest agency currently dealing with drug use in prison. They have quite a practical attitude towards users. They discourage usage, of course, but are realistic in accepting that some users cannot stop themselves and, what's more, will not be stopped. They are a truly wonderful outfit trying to contain a phenomenon as out of control as a forest fire. If all drugs were legalised (I'm not for one minute saying they should be) prisons would lose the vast majority of their customers overnight.

There are two issues CARAT workers warn users about: possible punishments for using and possible punishments for racking up debt. These are the most likely to deter users, by now indifferent to the state of their own health. Using drugs in prison, a CARAT worker will tell newly arrived and identified users, is not the same as using outside.

From the prisoners' perspective, getting the money to pay for drugs is the real issue. One hears appalling stories:

Before coming inside I was piping rocks almost every day. I began to smoke brown to take the edge off coming down. I ended up hooked on both and in debt to the dealers. I haven't got the money to pay them and now they're threatening my family. I feel so helpless stuck in here when my family is in danger outside.
Users cannot fund their habits from what they earn in prison. Most prisoners pay for their supply with money they have sent in or by selling what they have with them in prison. But they can't do this for very long without putting a strain on their relationship with people outside. For example, a prisoner may be tempted to sell his phone card for drugs rather than use it to contact his family. Said prisoner may then be tempted to borrow from the dealers. But he needs to watch that he doesn't borrow more than he can pay back.

Prisoners who can't pay their drug debts often end up on the Rule. In some prisons this is called the Vulnerable Prisoners wing. Even those in debt to tobacco barons can end up here. Once they are on the Rule, they can get labelled a nonce, or sex offender. It's very difficult to get back to normal location even if they transfer to another prison.

Of course, being caught using, selling or being in possession inside can add time to a prisoner's sentence. It is also illegal to be found positive in Mandatory Drugs Tests. The penalties include extra days added to a sentence and an adjudication may count against those found guilty in parole or temporary-release hearings.

The prison service is trying desperately hard to stamp out usage and to stop the drugs coming in. But imprisonment sharpens a man's ingenuity and determination. They have so much time to think. I've heard about drugs and mobile phones, too, for that matter, being thrown over walls into exercise yards at pre-arranged times. Of course, the most scandalous and disquieting point of entry is when it is brought in by the staff themselves. Years ago, the vicar in Pentonville, so the story goes, was distributing whisky in a misguided attempt to succour his flock. People are stupid and do bad things: prisoners and prison officers are no exceptions.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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