Why crackdowns on drugs in prisons completely miss the point


This blog was originally written in 2008. We're re-posting it here in light of today's announcement from justice secretary Chris Grayling that he plans to "reinforce the prison estate’s zero tolerance approach to contraband", with new penalties for prisoners found in possession of drugs.

So another report on drugs in prisons, another outline of how bad the problem is, another list of how drugs get into prisons, and set of recommendations for a crackdown - based on, you guessed it, a new co-ordinated strategy, new technology and some new guidelines on best practice. As with previous reports on this issue, (and there have been a series of them going back decades, but all saying essentially the same thing) there is something missing here that renders this report just as pointless as all its predecessors. What's missing is the bigger picture. The courage to ask: why is there such an overwhelming demand for drugs in prison in the first place?

The new Blakey report, having described the five main routes by which drugs get into prisons acknowledges that 'If one route is disrupted or closed then more pressure will be placed on the other routes'. This analysis is central to the problems being faced but is not really explored by Blakey, beyond saying (one feels, without much conviction) that what is needed is a strategy that addresses all the routes in. By brushing past this he's missing the key point, essentially the same economic analysis that can be applied to the failure of prohibition and attempts to enforce supply controls nationally and globally, for which the failure at prison level provides a neat microcosm.

Where there is demand for drugs, but no licit supply, a potentially huge profit opportunity is created for criminal profiteers. The high risk environment of a prison inflates the market price of drugs within its walls (often by several hundred %) beyond their already inflated prices on the illicit market beyond them (for heroin and cocaine - by several several thousand % by the time they hit Britain's streets). So a gram that costs pennies to actually produce can sell for several hundred pounds inside a prison, and it is that sort of profit that encourages the kind of entrepreneurial cunning that can get literally tonnes of Class A drugs into high security prisons, year after year, crackdown after crackdown. It would be hard to imagine how we could have engineered a worse scenario. Firstly we fill prisons with dependent drug users: 17% are inside for drug offences and more than half of the rest are problem users inside for offending related to their habits. A majority have mental health and emotional or psychological problems contributing to a (hardly surprising) demand for substances that can offer some temporary relief from the tedium, pain and misery of life in a cage. Indeed life inside can be so grim that many prisoners who arrive without a drug problem have developed one by the time they leave. The regular politician's refrain that prison is a good place for addressing drug problems is, in the vast majority of cases, offensively ridiculous (here's a test: present a series of treatment/recovery options to a group of treatment specialist for any given patient and see how many pick prison) . Not only is prison hugely more expensive than even residential rehab (it is actually more expensive than staying at the Ritz hotel), but its brutal reality is far more likely to be damaging and traumatic than healing and rehabilitative.

Into this population of often damaged chaotic dependent drug users we mix a significant number of violent criminal profiteers, most of whom are inside for drug dealing, and most of whom are well connected to the illegal drugs underworld. Who is really surprised at the outcome of this volatile cocktail? The demand for drugs in prison is so great and the profits so astronomical that a situation exists where economic pressures ensure a supply route will always be found. As Blakey says, shut down one avenue and the economic pressure starts to make exploring other ones worthwhile. At some point the opportunities created even start to entice some prison staff into the market - a point at which any vague hope of preventing drugs in the prisons is effectively lost, and a point long since passed.

This is of course exactly the same phenomenon we see on the national and international stage with the hopeless futility of decades of drug eradication, interdiction, and populist nonsense about 'securing our borders' that bears a non-coincidental resemblance to the political rhetoric of the past 48 hours. We have long witnessed 'the balloon effect' that, for example, saw the 'crackdown' on cocaine production in Bolivia more than compensated for by a rise in Colombian production, or similarly how the 'crackdown' on Iranian smuggling routes for Afghan opium has pushed trafficking to new routes through the former Soviet republics to the North. Meanwhile, despite the billions hosed into supply side drug enforcement each year, the illicit trade thrives, drugs are more available and cheaper than ever and the violent gangsters selling them get richer and richer. Not only is the analysis of supply and demand in an unregulated illicit drug trade the same at prison, national and international level, so evidently are the responses: announce a big crackdown, unveil some new technology, produce a new strategy, create a new agency (or rename an old one), then announce your process successes to show you are 'doing something' whilst avoiding those pesky 'outcome' measures... etc etc... Regardless of scale all such efforts that attempt to defy economic reality are equally futile.

So what is the answer? Firstly, politicians need to move beyond the denial stage of their addiction to punitive responses, to understand and respond to the problem's deeper structural causes, rather than merely deploying yet another doomed (even if sometimes well intentioned) attempt to deal with the symptoms. These causes of the problem lie at the heart of what is wrong with the UK drug policy:

  • The entire punitive culture and prevailing discourse that defaults to punishing, criminalising and imprisoning problem drug users rather than seeking primarily to promote their rehabilitation and wellbeing.
  • The populist political addiction to the use of prison more generally.
  • The symptomatic knee-jerk responses and the inability to engage with the problems that underly most problematic drug use; social and emotional deprivation, social exclusion and the failings of the education and welfare systems, failings of mental health services, failings of the care system, problems in the labour market for key populations, failure of social provision and the lack of investment in social capital for young people, and so on.
  • The prevailing system of absolute-prohibition that creates the illegal drug markets, the criminal entrepreneurs, and the financial pressures that drive dependent drug users into offending in the first place

Some responses advocated by Blakey and others may of course produce some improved outcomes on some measures; more investment in prison treatment is better than none at all for example - and if it can improve health and successfully reduce demand for drugs in prisons then that's a positive step. But such successes will be marginal, only be 'success' relative to the catastrophic failings of the past, and will essentially be reducing problems created by the wider failings of the prohibition-prison drug management model in the first place.

In the medium term we must completely move away from using prison as a sanction for non-violent drug (or drug-related) offenders of any kind, and develop and explore alternatives to custody that are consistently demonstrated to be not only cheaper but far more effective on key indicators - not least re-offending. We must help problem drug users rebuild their lives with appropriate tailored treatment and holistic support (including employment and housing support) rather than punishing and branding them with the stigma of a criminal record. The public have repeatedly been shown to support such cost effective responses and it is a mystery why politicians cannot embrace them and show leadership on this issue, rather than continuing to pander to a small nexus of vitriolic tabloid ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ commentators

In the longer term we need to have the long overdue review of the whole crumbling edifice of prohibition, its generational failure and its role in crime creation. Central to this is a meaningful exploration of regulatory alternatives to illicit drug markets, ones that are controlled by the state rather than by the mafia, and that sit within a broader policy framework predicated on public health and harm reduction principles, rather than knee-jerk punitive populism and medieval prisons.