Drones, rampant violence and under-staffing as HMP Bristol struggles to deal with Spice problem.
Illustrations: Joe Watson-Price
“It was just day-to-day that someone had a Spice attack. It just became routine, it desensitises you. Some of the things that I heard and saw were harrowing.”
This was just a usual day at the office for a drugs worker at Bristol prison. He has now revealed exclusively to the Cable the changing nature and effects of synthetic drug Spice at HMP Bristol.
While medical staff have got better at dealing with the effects of Spice—which can involve life-threatening seizures, psychotic episodes and breathing problems—the drug has become even more unpredictable, with prisoners smoking homemade Spice containing chemicals including cockroach killer and alloy wheel cleaner.
The ex-prison worker has reported that staff are powerless to prevent the distribution of Spice, of which thousands of pounds worth is estimated to enter the prison weekly via silent drones which deliver to cell windows or on paper through the post.
Spice—the catch-all term for synthetic cannabinoids—used to be available as a ‘legal high’ in shops but was banned in 2016. It was designed to mimic cannabis, but is so much stronger that it has been described as “worse than heroin”. The drug continues to be a major problem among Bristol’s rough sleepers, and the number of Spice users being treated by paramedics has soared in the last year.
Nicknamed the ‘bird killer’, Spice is popular among prisoners because it’s so strong it can knock them out for hours and pass the time. It has been linked to bullying and violence among prisoners, as well as mental health problems and self harm.
Spice first arrived in men’s prisons about six years ago and by 2015, full scale epidemics had developed in many men’s prisons, especially category B institutions like HMP Bristol, where inmates are typically on remand or serving short sentences.
In October 2017, prison workers first told the Cable about a Spice epidemic, amid fears about deteriorating prisoner safety and chronic understaffing. They said drug use was “rife” as Spice was smuggled in through packages, by drones, new inmates or even corrupt staff. The new reports suggest that the prohibition of Spice has led to increasingly unpredictable compounds being smoked – and staff are powerless to stop it.
Chapter 1: The changing face of Spice
Mike, who wished to be known by first name only, worked as a drugs worker at HMP Bristol since 2012. He left a few months ago because he’d had enough of regularly witnessing the effect of Spice on inmates and a feeling of powerlessness, as prisoners with drug problems came in and out on short sentences.
“In prison, it’s a different world of crazy,” he tells the Cable. “I describe the environment as completely bonkers.”
“Spice is the ideal prison drug. People said whole sentences were just gone like that – a week or a month. They said the withdrawal was worse than coming off heroin – not being able to sleep. People use it to come off heroin but get addicted.
“When you’ve got someone locked up all the time and they have this really easy out, it’s very difficult to argue with that logic.”
“When Spice first came out, there were lots of people using it, there would be lots of Spice attacks and the healthcare staff didn’t really know how to deal with it. It was a proper epidemic. On one day we had 25 ambulances. We didn’t know what Spice was, what it did.”
A long-anticipated government review of the 2016 ban concluded the ban hasn’t had “a significant impact on reducing use in prisons”.
Spice is still the most popular drug, despite more testing, attempted security crackdowns and a smoking ban that have all failed to reduce supply.
But in the last few years, Mike says the regime has got better at dealing with the effects. “As time went on, the ambulance numbers did drop as the healthcare team and prison officers became better at handling people having Spice attacks and they brought in a paramedic who was able to deal with a lot in-house.”
Data acquired by the Cable via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request reveal that the number of ambulance call outs to HMP Bristol have fallen in the last two years. In 2017, ambulances had to provide medical assistance at the prison 145 times, compared with 207 in 2015. However, the 2017 figure is still high – nearly double that in 2014.
While ambulances are less common now, both self harm and violence are at record highs in men’s prisons. The Chief Inspector of Prisons said in his 2017/18 report that inspectors had seen most disturbing jail conditions ever, particularly in men’s local prisons like Bristol.
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Bristol was ranked at the second worst prison in the country in terms of violence, overcrowding and drug use, according to analysis by Trinity Mirror Data Unit earlier this year.
In 2017, there were 427 reports of self harm at HMP Bristol, compared with 256 the previous year and 438 assaults compared with 287 in 2016. The report said “the ready availability of drugs in too many prisons sat behind much of the violence” and a “shockingly high” number of prisoners picked up a drug habit while they were inside.
The self-harm that Mike has witnessed was either drug related or due to mental health problems that weren’t being addressed because the mental health team was stretched.
He saw Spice being used to bully more vulnerable inmates. He recalls times where an inmate would be offered a few hits on a bong for free. “It would be game over and they’d have a seizure, the others laughing, and then they’d be in debt.”
He was also in on the day of an incident that has been widely reported. “A prisoner was being goaded by other prisoners, he sliced the words ‘I’m not a nonce’ into the inside of his thigh. He was down in the healthcare unit. He got a razor and dismembered himself, because of the effects of Spice.”
Mike has also seen first-hand how unpredictable the drug is. “It varies on what batches are in,” he says. “Different batches would have names, ‘Annihilation’, ‘Man Down’, ‘Train Wreck’”. Some weeks would be relatively peaceful, but the next alarms would go off every day, or there’d be a day with lots of self harm.
“I used to love walking onto a wing and it smelling like cannabis, because it was going to be less volatile. Sometimes you’d walk on the wings and there’d be this fog of Spice smoke which has a frangranty, potpourri-type smell.”
“A lot of prisoners were making it using a very specific set of random chemicals – alloy wheel cleaner, cockroach cleaner and nail varnish remover”
Although Mike says staff were better at dealing with the effects of the drug, earlier this year he heard something concerning – that Spice was being made with various toxic chemicals.
This trend is a result of the 2016 ban. Shortly before Spice became illegal, dealers bought up all the remaining stocks to resell on the black market. For a while, these stocks were distributed but have since run out, leaving a demand and no product. This has given rise to people making Spice themselves using different chemicals.
“Some people said they were buying liquid bottles of Spice on the darknet [unregulated internet sites], adding in whatever herbal compound and making it that way,” he says.
“Then a lot of prisoners were making it using a very specific set of random chemicals – alloy wheel cleaner, cockroach cleaner and nail varnish remover. They were poured onto a sheet of paper and then dried. They smoke that and get quite horrible effects from it—not dissimilar from the effects of Spice.”
These effects were vivid hallucinations, nausea, heavy limbs, feeling completely disassociated from reality and being unable to functions— similar to solvent abuse.
The main worry was around how these chemicals would interact with opiate-based medication that some inmates were on, such as heroin replacements methadone and Subutex.
“I was really concerned about this and ran focus groups with prisoners who we knew took it to gather information on who made it and the effects. A surprising number of prisoners knew what they were smoking,” Mike says.
Such were the levels of concern that this information that was passed onto Public Health England and there was a campaign in prisons in the southwest to crack down on the trend. Some inmates were detoxed from their opiate prescriptions and there was a drugs amnesty.
Chapter 2: Barry’s story
Someone who’s experienced these things first-hand is Barry, who has spent much of his life in and out of prison.
“When I was in jail, I died three times on Spice – once in Horfield, twice in Guys Marsh,” he tells the Cable. “I came round in the hospital chained to the officer after being out for 24 hours. I flatlined in the ambulance. As soon as I got back to the jail, I was looking for more Spice. That’s how crazy it is.
“I’d have one puff and that would do me,” he says.
“I know people who sell Spice and make good money. They might go to jail for five years, the same day they come out, they start selling again because the risks are high but the rewards are great.”
He painted a picture of officers powerless to stopping drugs being smuggled in. “When the parcels used to come over the wall, they land on the floor and all the officers could do would say, ‘No one go near that parcel’. What are you going to do to me if I walk over, pick up the parcel and shove it up my arse?” They can’t even come onto the exercise yard because it’s a dangerous spot for them.” Outnumbered by inmates, they could get hurt.
One of the reasons Spice is so popular is because it passes the time when prisoners are locked up almost 24 hours a day. The 2017/18 inspection report said at Bristol, “as a result of staff shortages, prisoners had experienced a reduced regime, with cancellations and curtailments for over two years.”
By 2020 the budget for the Ministry of Justice will have been cut by £3.7bn – or 40% in real terms – since 2010/11. At Bristol, the number of prison officers was cut from 160 in 2013 to 113 in 2016, but has risen again to 151 in 2017.
Mike says the cut in staff numbers and recruitment drive when problems arose has caused a loss of experience. “The new officers were quite young because the salary isn’t appealing. Prisoners who are 30-40 years old, taking orders from teenagers, it’s not gonna go to well.”
This is what Barry experienced. “The young ones are easily manipulated,” he says. “Imagine being 22 and getting told by prisoners that they’re gonna fuck you up. For prison officers it’s hard.”
The most common way prisoners smoke Spice now is in paper form, Barry says. “You get the writing paper, a line. Spice has been sprayed onto paper that gets sent in. You strip it down and sell a bit of paper, 25 quid for a strip, you then get a razor blade and cut it into thin lines.
“You get the tea bag, mix it with a nicotine patch so when you smoke a bit of paper, you’re still getting high. That’s the lengths people will go to. It’s crazy.”
Robert Ralphs, a senior lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Met University, who has been researching Spice in prisons in the northwest, tells the Cable: “Spice is more likely to come into the prison on paper form now, which is much harder for prisons to detect.”
“It’s sprayed onto A4 pieces of paper, and a bit of paper the size of a credit card sell for £20-50. A bit of paper as small as your fingernail could be smoked. Vulnerable prisoners are sometimes forced to pay more. Others will get it for free or much cheaper.”
Chapter 3: Testing, smoking bans and tighter security
Since Spice became such a problem in men’s prisons, the government has announced a raft of security measures to crack down on the supply of the drug, including better testing, more sniffer dogs and specialist units to tackle drug smuggling using drones.
More comprehensive testing for new psychoactive substances (NPS), including Spice, was rolled out in prisons in September 2017. There were 57 positive results for NPS at HMP Bristol in 2017/18, by far the most tested for, accounting for nearly half of all positive mandatory drug testing (MDT) results. Spice is likely to make up the majority of these, which is further evidence that it is the most prevalent drug at the prison.
“If anything, it creates more problems as prisoners try to avoid positive drug tests by using difference substances that are harder to detect.” While this gives a picture of Spice use in prison, Ralphs doubts whether it’s an effective deterrent. “Positive tests for NPS have increased in the last few years, which is a good thing, but I still believe that Mandatory Drug Testing should be scrapped because it doesn’t deter prisoners from using drugs,” he says.
“Drones are pretty quiet, prisoners tell me they hover just outside a cell window, they stick a broom handle out and unhook the package. The drugs get distributed immediately before the officers can intervene. That happens probably daily”
Last year, the government announced a new national task force to forensically examine captured drones being used to deliver drugs to prisons.
Mike says with Bristol prison’s location on a residential street in Horfield, that packages often used to be thrown over the wall and drugs were brought in on visits, but now drones are the most common, bringing in thousands of pounds of drugs every week. Other common routes in are on paper and via prisoners coming in and out on short sentences.
“Drones are pretty quiet, prisoners tell me they hover just outside a cell window, they stick a broom handle out and unhook the package. The drugs get distributed immediately before the officers can intervene. That happens probably daily.”
“There was one officer who made a device and was just throwing it at (the drones). He took down eight in a week. If they’ve caught eight, there’s lots that have got through.”
Another drug smuggling route is corrupt officers. During the inquest of an inmate who died of an overdose of prescription drugs in December 2016 shortly after a transfer to Bristol prison, it was revealed that an officer had smuggled in £20,000 worth of drugs and mobile phones.
Kevin ‘Bunny’ Crehan, 35, died of an overdose on a number of prescription drugs, including heroin substitute methadone, pregabalin and gabapentin. The Cable revealed earlier this year that a lots of prisoners were addicted to pregabalin acquired on the black market inside the prison, leading to a crackdown on prescriptions.
Joanne Hadden, the head of security at HMP Bristol, said the prison had closed down the route of corrupt officers, and that letters through the post were now more common. Mike says that staff were overlooked and that there were very few searches.
Staffing problems also mean that officers search cells less often, Mike says. “When there used to be more officers, more searches happened. As time went on, searches were less and less. Every now again, they might search a whole wing, but that was so infrequent.”
“If an officer knew drugs were in a cell, they couldn’t search it, they had to go to the computer and submit an information report, by which time it’s already been passed on or smoked, which is madness.”
“Sometimes they might bring the dogs in, but as soon as one prisoner finds out, they yell and suddenly you hear lots of toilets flushing and the drugs are gone.”
Bristol prison also introduced a smoking ban in April 2017, which has made Spice cheaper than tobacco, encouraged prisoners to smoke Spice without tobacco and caused electrical problems due to inmates using the electrics to light their joints.
Mike noticed these problems early on. “When prisoners come in they are taken off alcohol and others drugs, or put on a script, but now they were having their cigarettes taken away too – the only vice left for some people. People would want a cigarette but there wouldn’t be any tobacco around so they would smoke Spice pure.
“Tobacco’s cost in the prison skyrocketed—to £5 for a roll-up or £500 for a 30g pouch of tobacco. It became very tradable. Spice is cheap so now it’s even more of a viable alternative.”
By comparison, a piece of paper sprayed with Spice the size of a credit card can be worth as little as £20, which Ralphs says could provide 20 or 30 hits.
“People who have never smoked before start smoking it,” Mike says. “Bullying went up because tobacco became another commodity, then people who couldn’t cope with underlying mental health problems, their risk of self harm went up.”
“That’s what it’s like,” he says. “You can’t stop them.”
Mike says this sets off the fire alarm and blows the power. Power boxes outside cells had to be busted open because the switches were blown. “I’m very curious how much all those repairs costed,” he says.
A Prisons Service spokesperson said: “We are spending an extra £70 million on safety and security measures including x-ray scanners, drug-detection dogs, better perimeter searches and phone-blocking technology to keep drugs out of prison.
“HMP Bristol has in place a number of measures to prevent the use of drugs, including detection dogs and dedicated search teams to tackle to supply of drugs at the prison.
“In addition, we’re tackling the criminal gangs that smuggle drugs into prisons by investing an additional £14 million each year to cut off their ability to do business.”
For Mike, a flawed prison system and unhelpful drug laws have caused a lot of the problems with Spice in prisons. “You will never stop the supply of Bristol prison, but you need to address the demand.
“I thought the drugs team were under-utilised. We were a small team, and had to do assessments which took a lot of time. We weren’t able to do any meaningful work and get to know a prisoner, unpick their lives and what brought them here. We had to just ask the same stupid questions over and over again, and what we did I felt was meaningless.”
“The Spice problem isn’t going away. They need to drastically sort out the probation system and the reasons for sending people to prison. It just facilitates all this.”
“When they ban one substance, something takes its place. It’s been a trend for years. When they banned Spice, they tweaked it so much that it looked nothing like it did originally and who knows what the effects of it are now.
“I do worry, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to work there any more.”