spice The number of prisoner deaths in which the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) may have played a part has now risen to at least 39, said Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen. Today he spoke at an event, hosted by Reform, ‘New Psychoactive substances: a case for integration between health and criminal justice services’.

Discussing the risks to prisoners and prison staff from new psychoactive substances (NPS), Nigel Newcomen drew on lessons from his earlier publication of July 2015 which looked at the deaths of 19 prisoners. 

Nigel Newcomen said:

“We have now identified 39 deaths in prison between June 2013 and June 2015 where the prisoner was known, or strongly suspected, to have been using NPS before their death.  Of these deaths:

·         two have no cause of death;

·         two were the result of drug toxicity and the drugs included NPS;

·         six were the result of natural causes but NPS may have played a part. In one case for example, the prisoner died of a heart attack after taking NPS and our clinical reviewer considered that NPS may have been the trigger for the attack;

·         one death was a homicide of a prisoner involved with NPS by another prisoner suspected of  smoking NPS; and

·         the remaining 28 deaths were self-inflicted.  Some involved psychotic episodes probably resulting from NPS, for others NPS appeared to exacerbate vulnerability.”


Mr Newcomen highlighted the three types of risk from NPS:

  • a risk to physical health through drug toxicity, seizures or heart failure;
  • a risk to mental health, with extreme and unpredictable behaviour and psychotic episodes, sometimes linked to suicide and self-harm; and
  • the risk of associated problems of debt and bullying, which may increase the risk of suicide and self-harm among the vulnerable.

He also highlighted five areas of learning to tackle the risks posed by NPS in prisons.

  • First, supply needs to be reduced. Trafficking in NPS needs to be tackled by effective local drug supply and violence reduction strategies;
  • Second, staff awareness needs to be increased. Prison staff need better information about NPS, and how to spot that a prisoner is taking them;
  • Third, governors need to address the bullying and debt associated with NPS robustly;
  • Fourth, drug treatment services need to address NPS use and offer appropriate monitoring and treatment; and
  • Fifth, demand for NPS among prisoners needs to be reduced, with prisons and healthcare providers ensuring that there are engaging education programmes for prisoners outlining the risks of using NPS

Mr Newcomen commended prison and health care services for beginning to act on this learning, saying:

“We must hope that these efforts have an effect.  But there is a long, long way to go.”

 A copy of the speech can be found on our website from 1500 on 9 May 2016. Visit www.ppo.gov.uk.