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 79, said Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen. Tonight (11/7/2017) he addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs at the House of Lords.
Looking back at his six-year tenure, and discussing the rise in self-inflicted deaths in prisons, Mr Newcomen said the prison system was yet to emerge from a crisis. He discussed major themes that have emerged from his investigations and studies into deaths in custody that need to be acted upon, and mentioned the problem of mental ill-health among prisoners, which needs to be better recognised by staff and, if recognised, better managed.
Nigel Newcomen said:
“As well as mental ill-health, another contributory factor to the increase in suicide in prison is the epidemic of new psychoactive substances. My researchers have now identified 79 deaths between June 2013 and September 2016 where the deceased was known or strongly suspected to have taken NPS before death or where their NPS use was a key issue during their time in prison. Of these investigations, 56 were self-inflicted deaths.
In the past, Mr Newcomen has highlighted the four types of risk from NPS:
- a risk to physical health – NPS use may hasten the effects of underlying health concerns;
- a risk to mental health, with extreme and unpredictable behaviour and psychotic episodes, sometimes linked to suicide and self-harm;
- behavioural problems, where the NPS user has presented violent or aggressive behaviour, which is often uncharacteristic for that prisoner; and
- the risk of debt or bullying, as the use of NPS often results in prisoners getting into debt with prison drug dealers.
Nigel Newcomen said:
“Establishing direct causal links between NPS and the death is not easy, but my investigations identified a number of cases where my clinical reviewers considered that NPS led to psychotic episodes which resulted in self-harm. In other cases, NPS led to bullying and debt of the vulnerable, also resulting in self-harm.
“NPS is a scourge in prison, which I have described as a “game-changer” for prison safety. Reducing both their supply and demand for them is essential.
“But neither mental ill-health, nor the availability of NPS wholly explain the rise in suicides in prison. Every case is an individual tragedy with numerous triggers. And, in such complex circumstances, the safety net of effective suicide prevention procedures is essential. Unfortunately, too often my investigations identify repeated failings in prison suicide prevention procedures.”
Mark Leech editor of The Prisons Handbook said: “This further rise in prison deaths attributable to NPS is deeply concerning, it shows that despite a range of measures introduced by HMPPS, and a Thematic Review by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in December 2015, these dangerous drugs continue to cause deaths inside our prisons.
“Research shows that synthetic cannabinoids, usually known as Spice or Black Mamba, form the only category of illicit drugs whose use by prisoners is higher in prisons than in the community, 10% compared to 6%, and there is no easy answer to it – many of those who take NPS say they do so for reasons of boredom one solution therefore is to resource the Prison Service to deliver the active purposeful regimes that have been steadily stripped away since 2010.”
The Prisons Handbook: Further reading and research on NPS can be found at the following links
■ NPS in Prisons – a Toolkit for Staff: http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/9011-phe-nps-toolkit-update-final.pdf
■ Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2015/16 Crime Survey for England and Wales https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/drug-misusefindings-from-the-2015-to-2016-csew
■ Changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons and service responses. A thematic review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/ wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/12/Substance-misuseweb-2015.pdf
■ Adult substance misuse statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS)1st April 2015 to 31st March 2016 http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/adult-statistics-from-thenational-drug-treatment-monitoring-system-2015-2016.pdf
■ HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2014–15 https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wpcontent/uploads/sites/4/2015/07/HMIP-AR_2014-15_TSO_ Final1.pdf
■ HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2015–16 https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wpcontent/uploads/sites/4/2016/07/HMIP-AR_2015-16_web-1. pdf
■ Spice: the bird killer (User Voice May 2016) http://www.uservoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ User-Voice-Spice-The-Bird-Killer-Report-Low-Res.pdf
■ Project NEPTUNE guidance, 2015 www.neptune-clinical-guidance.co.uk/wp-content/ uploads/2015/03/NEPTUNE-Guidance-March-2015.pdf
■ Harms of Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRAs) and Their Management. Novel Psychoactive Treatment UK Network NEPTUNE http://neptune-clinical-guidance.co.uk/wp-content/ uploads/2016/07/Synthetic-Cannabinoid-ReceptorAgonists.pdf
■ Ministry of Justice press release, 25 January 2015 www.gov.uk/government/news/new-crackdown-ondangerous-legal-highs-in-prison
■ Centre for Social Justice, ‘Drugs in prison’, 2015 http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/library/drugs-inprison
■ EMCDDA, European Drug Report 2015: ‘Trends and developments’, June 2015 www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/edr/trendsdevelopments/2015
■ Drugscope, ‘Not for human consumption: an updated and amended status report on new psychoactive substances and ‘club drugs’ in the UK’,2015 http://www.re-solv.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Notfor-human-consumption.pdf
■ PHE, ‘New psychoactive substances. A toolkit for substance misuse commissioners’, 2014 www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/nps-a-toolkit-for-substancemisuse-commissioners.pdf
■ Home Office, ‘Annual report on the Home Office Forensic Early Warning System (FEWS). A system to identify new psychoactive substances (NPS) in the UK’, September 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/461333/1280_EL_FEWS_Annual_ Report_2015_WEB.pdf
■ Global Drug Survey 2016 https://www.globaldrugsurvey.com/past-findings/theglobal-drug-survey-2016-findings/
A copy of the speech can be found on the PPO’s web site from 14 July 2017. Visit www.ppo.gov.uk.