Drug Use & Addiction in UK Prisons

Drug consumption in UK prisons has become a well-publicised fact. Media reports show soaring drug consumption amongst inmates, the creation of new drugs and ingenious ways of distributing them.

A recent survey by the Prison Reform Trust found that 19% of prisoners who have used heroin reported first using it in prison. It also stated that 70% of offenders report drug misuse prior to being sent into prison. Within the prison system 51% of the offenders report a drug addiction while 16% are alcohol dependent.

The cause of this epidemic in prisons is continually being debated. It is a hot potato being tossed between those advocating stronger penalties towards drug users and those in favour of more liberalisation.

Q&A With an Expert

I put some questions to Doctor Maria Kelly, the Associate Medical Director at Castle Craig Hospital. Dr Kelly worked in a specialist forensic service in Scotland for many years and shares some valuable insights about the way drugs are handled in “secure hospitals”.

Q: Is there a medical explanation for why inmates take drugs while in prison?

A: There is a higher than average prevalence of mental illness in prisoners and therefore some in prison suffer from depression, insomnia, anxiety or ‘voices’ and will seek drugs to self-medicate. But for many others, drugs are sought to provide respite from the awfulness of prison. Also, there is a genetic link between the impulsivity that may have led to the conviction, and addiction to substances. Another factor is “availability” – there are drug-pushers amongst the inmates.

Q: A recent House of Commons report cited “boredom” in prison as a reason for taking drugs. Do prison conditions encourage addiction?

A: It is possible that the ease of access to drugs in prison encourages repeated use which contributes to addiction. And as mentioned, the emotional ordeal of conviction and incarceration. It is likely that lack of occupation in any setting increases the risk of harmful drug use and therefore can lead to addiction.

Q: How can the Situation in Prison improve?

A: In working within secure hospitals which have accepted prisoners as patients, I have seen great transformations in health and behaviour which I believe could possibly be achieved within the prison setting as well. But security was very strict indeed; importing drugs was made very difficult.

There are many prisoners who are suffering untreated mental disorders and who are misusing drugs. These two issues cause great suffering but can be successfully addressed with expert care.

My lasting impression, and wish, from my work in forensic services has been that prisons could, and perhaps should, be run as secure hospitals attending to health and education.

Photo courtesy of Andrei Zamfir

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