Inmates at one jail described how the availability of drugs, coupled with a recently imposed smoking ban, had helped fuel a sense of “hopelessness”.
Spice – a synthetic substance that mimics the effects of cannabis – has been identified as a factor behind the surging levels of self-harm and violence that has gripped much of the prisons estate.
An assessment from HM Inspectorate of Prisons details the drug’s impact at HMPErlestoke, a category C training jail holding around 500 men in Wiltshire.
The report says: “Many prisoners we spoke to said that the availability of drugs, coupled with the recent smoking ban, had contributed to a widespread sense of hopelessness, and that it was difficult to maintain recovery in an atmosphere where so many other prisoners were regularly under the influence of Spice.
“Prisoners also told us that the price of Spice was around half of that for illicit tobacco, which encouraged more Spice use than we have seen in similar prisons recently.
“There were frequent medical emergencies, some very serious, resulting from Spice use, partly due to prisoners smoking Spice without diluting it with tobacco, as is common practice elsewhere.”
A ban on smoking in jails has been phased in since the beginning of last year. Figures released earlier this month showed that 66 establishments in England and Wales are now smoke-free.
Inspectors visited HMP Erlestoke in June and July and found there was “clear evidence” of the widespread use of alcohol and drugs.
Prisoner self-harming had doubled since the last inspection in 2013, and the number of reported violent incidents had gone up.
The watchdog also said it was concerned to find prisoners in a cell with a “significant hole” in the exterior wall.
Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said: “Safety in the prison was not good enough.
“Much of the violence and bullying that did exist was, in our view, linked to a significant drug problem, and yet the prison lacked an effective drug strategy.”
He added: “Overall, and despite our criticisms, we do report on much that was positive in the prison. The management team was relatively new and evidenced an enthusiasm to make improvements.
“There was a sense that with a little more organisation and consistency, and with a determination to ensure policies and rules are complied with, the prison could become much better quite quickly.”
Michael Spurr, chief executive of HM Prison & Probation Service, said: “As the chief inspector points out there is much positive work being done by staff at Erlestoke.
“The supply and use of illicit psychoactive drugs has undermined safety in the prison.
“The governor is working with partners including the police and treatment agencies to address this issue as a priority.
“We will use the recommendations in this report to improve performance at Erlestoke over the coming months.”
Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook said: “I am not surprised by this at all, in fact I am only surprised that others are surprised by it.
“The roll out of the smoking ban is well-intended, the disastrous health effects of smoking are incontrovertible, but it cannot be done in a vacuum – and the Ministry of Justice have been warned and warned about this.
“Now they have simply created another illegal currency in our prisons – get the message: creating new laws on trafficking in our prisons, backed by criminal sanctions are completely impotent when you are threatening to send people to prison who are actually already there.”