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Drug use epidemic at HMP Bristol highlights prison system failings

Employees and experts speak out about the causes of declining conditions.


Employees and experts speak out about the causes of declining conditions.

Spice – known as the ‘bird killer’ – is popular among prisoners because its potency can kill time by knocking them out for hours on end

“Nobody knows how bad it is for you and it’s everywhere, all the time. You walk up the stairs every day, it stinks and you’re breathing it in. I don’t want to take drugs against my will.”

For Bridget*, a member of staff at Bristol prison, dealing with the drug spice has become part of her daily routine.

Spice – the common term for synthetic cannabinoids – was made illegal in 2016 by the controversial Psychoactive Substances Act. This banned an array of so-called ‘legal highs’, also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), which were previously available in shops.

But since the ban, spice – which remains rarely used among the general population – has continued to devastate the physical and mental health of vulnerable people; notably rough sleepers and prisoners.

While the drug has become known for its potency, cheapness and addictiveness, its prevalence in prisons has been helped by the fact that, until recently, it couldn’t be picked up by urine tests.

Speaking to the Cable on condition of anonymity, Bridget and another HMP Bristol employee have lifted the lid on the true extent of the spice epidemic at the prison, amid fears about deteriorating prisoner safety, spiralling violence and chronic understaffing.

Illustration: Joe Watsonprice

The ‘bird killer’

Nicknamed the ‘bird killer’, spice is popular among prisoners because its potency can kill time by knocking them out for hours on end.

The drug has been found to be a significant issue at most male prisons, but Category B institutions like HMP Bristol, where inmates are typically on remand or serving short sentences, are particularly prone to it.

According to Bridget, nearly half of the inmate population at HMP Bristol are taking it, making it by far the most-used illicit substance. Another employee at the Horfield prison, Patrick*, tells the Cable that spice is “rife” there and that the regime is “resigned to it”.

Spice is often smuggled into HMP Bristol by packages being thrown over the prison’s walls, which are surrounded by residential streets. The packages are then picked up by inmates in the yard when they go out for exercise.

Bridget says that although a group of officers police the situation daily, they often don’t find all the packages seen being thrown over.

Inmates use smuggled mobile phones to coordinate where the packages are going to be thrown in and when to pick them up, Patrick adds.

Residential wings at HMP Bristol were described by inspectors as ‘dirty and dilapidated’ with broken glass, peeling ceilings, damaged floors and a cockroach infestation

Prisoners can also plug their anus with up to 10 ounces of spice by filling a condom with three to four plastic Kinder eggs, each containing two to three ounces, research has found. There have been cases of visitors sending it through the post, including sprayed onto letters and children’s drawings.

Occasionally staff have been found to be involved in bringing drugs into HMP Bristol. Around six months ago, one Bristol employee was arrested for taking in a Weetabix box full of contraband, according to Bridget.

Regular emergencies

As a result of the influx, prison staff now regularly deal with emergencies – including overdoses, seizures and so-called ‘spice attacks’ – which can happen up to seven times a day, Bridget says. When a new batch comes in and inmates don’t know how strong it is, Patrick adds, ambulances sometimes have to be called every day.

Inmates are also mixing spice with other drugs, such as diazepam, which together increase the chances of respiratory arrest – when someone’s breathing stops.

As well as threatening physical health, many prisoners who present with mental health problems turn out to have taken spice, Patrick says.

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The drug can cause psychosis, paranoia and depression and has been linked to some appalling incidents of self-harm. Patrick recalls one “horrific” instance in which an inmate chopped off his genitals and tried to flush them down the toilet, apparently after having taken spice.

Overall safety in prisons nationally has deteriorated rapidly in recent years, and there were 287 assaults, 256 self-harm incidents and five self-inflicted deaths at HMP Bristol in 2016. All those figures are more than double their equivalents five years ago.

Bridget estimates there have been about five deaths over the last year relating to spice at Bristol, adding that it’s “a miracle” that number isn’t higher, considering how many near-deaths there are.

‘More and more assaults’

A damning inspection of Bristol prison in March found safety standards had deteriorated over the last three years. Residential wings were described as ‘dirty and dilapidated’ with broken glass, peeling ceilings, graffiti, damaged floors and a cockroach infestation – and the use of spice was described as ‘particularly problematic’.

More than half of inmates said it was easy or very easy to get hold of drugs, and the 31.3% rate of positive results under Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) was the second highest in the country.

While nearly one in three inmates entered prison with a pre-existing drug problem, a further one in seven said they developed an addiction whilst inside.

Violence relating to drug debts was also a major concern, with the number of inmates who felt victimised because of drugs being three times higher than at the last inspection.

The Prison Reform Trust says the government is “failing to provide appropriate care and support to vulnerable people caught in the justice system”

Bridget says there are “more and more assaults now, as well as spice attacks”, and that people have had “boiling water thrown in their face” as a result of debt related to the drug.

The inspection report concluded that most problems were ‘directly related to chronic staff shortages and a history of underinvestment in the prison’. Between 2013 and 2016, prison officer numbers at Bristol decreased by nearly a third. Despite staffing levels rising again in 2017, they are still lower than in 2013.

The inspection report, while mostly positive about the prison’s mental and physical health services, found instances of prisoners being denied treatment because there weren’t enough officers to escort them to the healthcare unit. On the night shift, Bridget adds, “there could be one nurse and one healthcare assistant for the whole prison”.

Although medical staff are encouraged to prevent hospitalisation of sick inmates, if an inmate is taken away in an ambulance, he must be accompanied by two or three officers, which further reduces staffing levels.

Bridget and Patrick both point to the wider impacts that understaffing can have. “If you had more staff, people would go to work, education, visits – they’d be out of their cells,” Bridget says.

Keeping prisoners cooped up in their cells for longer increases the need for spice, she goes on, because “isolation and boredom are definitely the biggest drivers behind [using] it”.

Smoking ban

It’s not just the inmates feeling the effects of the drug either. Spice can also be inhaled passively and Bridget recalls coming out of one cell feeling ill and confused after being exposed to it for just 30 seconds. This is not an uncommon occurrence, she says.

“We had an officer the other day who was severely intoxicated, who had to go home because he was vomiting everywhere. And then there’s less staff,” Bridget adds.

A smoking ban was introduced at HMP Bristol in April – but Bridget describes this as “the worst thing that could have happened”.

The move, designed to improve prisoner safety, had “completely backfired”. Those intent on smoking without lighters now risk being electrocuted, she adds, by generating a spark from ripped-out TV wires. One such case was thought to have killed an inmate.

Rob Ralphs, a professor of criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and expert in spice use in category B prisons, predicts the problem “will get worse” as a result of the ban, because prisoners are more likely to ingest the drug in powder form or use a bong, intensifying its effects.

Along with the ban, the government has also now rolled out new testing to detect NPS, including synthetic cannabinoids.

But, Ralphs tells the Cable, “there are so many different strands of synthetic cannabinoids that by the time the test is developed, trialled and approved, different ones are on the market”.

Ralphs adds that the spice found in prisons is sometimes a combination of multiple different strands, which makes it harder to test for and causes “more adverse reactions”. Staff also say the unpredictable reactions make it more difficult to treat.

While admitting that testing has improved, Ralphs says MDT was the “root cause” of prisons’ drug problems, because it encourages the use of substances that don’t stay in people’s systems for as long, or don’t show up on tests – similarly to when prisoners moved from cannabis onto heroin over a decade ago.

“Instead of investing more money in testing, it would be better to scrap MDT and reinvest the money into treatment,” he says.

a sad looking high prisionerIllustration: Joe Watsonprice

‘Unprecedented action’

When we ask the Prison Service for comment, a spokesperson says that “unprecedented action” is now being taken to stop the supply and use of drugs in prisons, including the new NPS testing regime and making it a criminal offence to possess psychoactive substances in prison.

“HMP Bristol has in place several measures to prevent the use of drugs, including increasing the number of detection dogs to tackle supply,” the spokesperson says. Specialist teams have also been tackling smuggling using drones, which are used to fly packages over prison walls.

Ralphs, however, describes the focus on drones as “a smokescreen” and the effectiveness of sniffer dogs as “debatable”.

A spokesperson for the Prison Reform Trust charity adds that in any case, reducing supply can only be “part of the solution” and that the government is “failing to provide appropriate care and support to vulnerable people caught in the justice system”.

“Overstretched and under-resourced prisons mean that people are spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells, rather than engaged in the activities we know will help them to turn their lives around,” the spokesperson goes on. “Unless we focus on those factors which drive demand for drugs, we’re unlikely to see the reduction in usage in prisons that we all want.”

At HMP Bristol, that’s also the view of staff. “The worst thing you can possibly do to someone with mental health problems and a drug addiction is lock them in a very small room with no entertainment,” Bridget says.

“It’s an ongoing battle – if we had more staff and more resources, we could do more.”


* The name of HMP employees have been changed.


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