The "going country" phenomenon has seen thousands of inner-city kids pouring into Britain's satellite towns and pastoral backwaters, bringing drugs from London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester to sell to local users. But because selling drugs is very illegal, it's also led to a rise in those same kids getting locked up in small cities and rural areas.
Going to prison for the first time is always a culture shock – life inside is fairly different to life outside, what with the guards and the ever-rising number of random assaults – but when all you know is city life, suddenly being surrounded by a load of Countryside Alliance accents only ramps up that sense of alienation.
Asif – a former crack and heroin dealer from London, who spent time in HMP Exeter for selling class As in Devon – says he and other county lines workers from the capital have been subjected to abuse from inmates and prison guards. Where noticeable differences can lead to victimisation, he explained, they are often counted as outsiders.
"Everybody's opinions were different, the way they talked was different," says Asif of the inmates he was surrounded by during his first time in a rural jail. "Even the way they dressed and their haircuts were different. Anyone like me, with a London accent, stood out straight away. I wasn't accepted because I was from London."
This resulted in a steady stream of verbal abuse from some of the locals, which Asif believes would have escalated into physical bullying if he'd been perceived as an easier target.
Asif got the feeling that some young county lines dealers from London weren't just getting bullied because they were city kids, but also because of the colour of their skin. He describes an incident in which an inmate working on the serving counter at dinnertime deliberately targeted a young black prisoner: "Everything was running smoothly because everyone was white-skinned, but then when a black boy came through they gave him something he didn't order. When he pointed out the mistake, he got told to fuck off."
Racism inside the prison system is a problem the government is under pressure to address. When Asif was in HMP Exeter, he says, black and Asian inmates – and prison guards – were few and far between. Compared to London prisons, which can be over 50 percent black and Asian, in HMP Exeter the proportion of BME prisoners is less than 5 percent. This is particularly pertinent, given that county lines dealers from London – the city where the largest number of networks originate – are predominantly black.
DC, who is black and in his twenties, was recently released from a drug supply sentence at HMP Winchester for his part selling drugs on a county line from Manchester to Hampshire. He says some staff at the prison appeared to resent the fact that people had travelled from elsewhere to sell drugs in their county.
"I used to feel hostile vibes from the officers who work on the units," he says. "There were situations where if I asked them for something they might answer me in a rude manner, then you'd see somebody with a different skin colour go and ask them and they might do what they ask them straight away."
While some county lines dealers might get a hard time in a rural prison, others take full advantage. "Prison's the perfect environment for networking, as well as an opportunity to expand one's own business empire," says former prisoner and now reformer, David Breakspear. Landing in prisons in rural areas provides city dealers with an opportunity to increase links with locals and grow their operations, he says: "The impact of county lines prisoners is just like any other crime that others can learn from, or that can enable new names to be added for contact upon release."
Clive, a 26-year-old former car thief from Exeter, has experienced this firsthand. He was recruited by incarcerated Mancunian county lines dealers to sell drugs upon his release while serving a short sentence at HMP Exeter. This eventually led to a longer stint inside for possession with intent to supply crack and heroin. According to Clive, prisoners who are higher up in the criminal hierarchy, local or not, will often look for potential workers while inside.
County lines drug dealers landing at prisons in the countryside increases the number of drug dealing jobs on offer for prisoners who are about to be released. "That’s how I was introduced to selling class A drugs," says Clive. "They look after you while you're in prison and then set up work for you once you're out." They can also expand their customer base by getting to know all of the drug addicts in the prison they're in, so they can sell to them once they've been released.
"I just took a phone number, was released from prison, met a lad from Manchester in Exeter, picked up a phone, picked up the drugs and started working for them – it was as simple as that. Every time I was released from prison after the first time, I just went back to the same house, picked up a parcel of drugs and carried on."
Despite the hostility shown to some of the city dealers in faraway prisons, in some ways it can reduce their chances of conflict, because being jailed far from home can reduce the likelihood of getting caught up in local rivalries. According to DC, it can insulate big city dealers from postcode-based confrontations or feuds between local gangs in nearby towns and cities.
"If you were from the same neck of the woods you're jailed in, you'd get yourself into more political situations," he explains. "I've heard that if you go to a Liverpool jail and you're from Manchester, the people from Liverpool don't really like you, so it avoided things like that."
This is backed up by Shailem, a former inmate in prisons on the south coast. "I found that inmates from Portsmouth and Southampton had a lot of rivalry in HMP Winchester," he says. "If you weren't from certain areas or didn't know specific individuals or groups, you tended to just get ignored."
According to a report issued by the Catch22 Dawes Unit, which investigates gang culture in the UK, street gang rivalry in prisons is a major cause of violence inside. Clive believes this is one of the factors that makes county lines dealing more attractive to some than selling drugs in their own backyard. "If some county lines drug dealers come down to Exeter from, let's say, London, they'll go there to sell their drugs and get arrested there," he says. "They don't know anyone and probably don't have any beef with anyone."
The fact that county lines dealers are less likely to be targeted in this way and become embroiled in local rivalries doesn't necessarily make them easier to manage. DC claimed that inmates in jails far from home will often be deliberately disruptive in the hope they'll be transferred to a prison closer to their local area. "If you're somewhere far from home, you've got to kick off with the governors or the screws every single day just to get a ship-out," he says.
Ryan, a 21-year-old who spent time on young offenders' wings in rural prisons alongside county lines drug dealers, says the same is also true of young offenders: "So many people being far away from their home areas led to them becoming involved in disturbances to try to force transfers nearer to where they're from."
Mind you, this is rarely successful. "Usually the only move they get is a transfer to the segregation unit," says Breakspear.
Prison is not a great place for anyone. But if you're a young, inexperienced kid from a big city caught selling class As in the countryside, a rural lock-up can be an intimidating place to be. Meanwhile, for drug sellers higher up the chain of command, they can be a handy recruitment ground, and perhaps a brief respite from inner city aggro.