Earlier this week, Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, told the Guardian that synthetic cannabis is having a "devastating impact" on British prisons. Nineteen deaths in prison between 2012 and 2014 were linked to the use of synthetic cannabis, commonly known as spice, but on a day-to-day operational level, the drug has been cited as a factor in increased bullying, violence, and self-harm among the prison population.
I teach at a prison. With inevitable regularity, every group I teach will at some point ask me whether I have ever taken drugs, what drugs I am going to be taking after work, and what drugs I plan to take at the weekend. My stock answer is to tell them to mind their own business. Today I turned the question on them and asked about their experiences of spice in prison.
'I'M NOT GOING TO SMOKE SOMETHING THAT'S BEEN BUNGED UP SOMEONE'S ARSE'
Andre, 20, is expecting his release on tag to be confirmed any day now. This is his fourth time inside, all for very minor theft and never over three months at a time. He is open about his drug use outside of prison, saying that he smokes cannabis every day and uses cocaine most weekends – albeit his definition of a weekend being from after work on Thursday until the following Tuesday morning.
I ask Andre if he has smoked any spice in prison. "No bro, no fucking way. For a start, I'm not going to smoke something that's probably been bunged up someone's arse." Okay, but what if it was thrown over the wall or dropped in by a drone? "No bro, still no chance. There's no way of knowing actually what spice is, could be fucking fish tranquilliser! Anyway, being inside is my detox before the summer."
Andre continues by describing a group of prisoners from his last sentence who would openly congregate in one cell and smoke spice during their association (association time being a prison equivalent to a communal work break or kids after-school club). Weren't they worried about an officer walking past? "No bro, most screws don't give a shit as long as it doesn't make you start kicking off and acting like a dick around the wing."
While I feel confident that most officers probably would intervene if they knew prisoners were smoking spice in open sight, I can see how prisoners might think the opposite: spice is odourless, and combined with the fact that loud, erratic behaviour is commonplace on most wings, it's easy to see how an officer without specific training might not pick up on the signs.
'IT'S MAINLY THE YOUNGER LADS, BUT OLDER PEOPLE ARE GETTING INTO IT'
Jackson, 28, is in prison for driving while disqualified (and several times over the legal limit of alcohol). Despite only receiving a sentence of a couple of months, he's been unfortunate in that he's had to move between prisons three times. I ask Jackson whether he noticed a strong synthetic cannabis presence across each of the prisons. "Yeah, it's mainly the younger lads, but there's more older people getting into it now. A wing cleaner at the first jail, probably about 40, used to smoke it on his tea break. He only got caught when after one break he started dancing on the pool table, singing about shagging a governor's wife."
I want to know if Jackson's seen anything more serious. "An 18-year-old took a big drag on some mamba [another name for spice] out in the yard. Next thing he was on the floor having a full-on seizure. Had to go to hospital." A few other men in the group have witnessed similar reactions to spice, and these darker anecdotes seem to outweigh the "calling out the governor" type of hi-jinx.
I ask Jackson if he's ever tried spice in prison. "At the first jail, yeah. A kid who worked on the servery used to sell it – he called it crom. We ended up sat in the cell spinning out to The Chase for an hour. Felt fucking rough after, mind."
'IT'S FOOD FOR WASTEMEN'
Eric, 30, is one year into a three-year sentence for the supply of class A drugs. He says that he uses cocaine socially when not in prison, and has in the past smoked weed. Like Andre, Eric also says that he sees prison as an opportunity to enjoy a period of sobriety, but when I ask him whether he would use synthetic drugs on the outside, he is immediately dismissive of spice, calling it "food for wastemen". I ask him to expand and he relates me back to Andre's point about many synthetic cannabis products having been found to contain ingredients such as tranquilliser intended for use on koi carp.
But would he sell it? "Nah, I've only ever moved stuff that I know there'll be no comeback from. There's no way of knowing what you're selling with that, and the last thing you want is man dying on you."
'THE PEOPLE IN HERE ARE CRIMINALS. YOU CAN'T JUST ASK THEM NOT TO DO SOMETHING'
Ant, 22, has pleaded guilty to a Section 20 (more commonly known as GBH) and is looking at a sentence of at least three years. He tells me that he committed the attack while "monged off my face on meow" and has found the ready availability of drugs in prison to be something of an issue; he seems to genuinely not want to take them, and is aware that should he fail a drug test between now and his sentencing, it will harm his chances of a more lenient sentence.
It's clear that Ant's been getting annoyed with how lightly some members of the group have been treating the discussion, and I ask him what he thinks should be done to help keep spice out of prison. "They could start by having more screws on more shifts. If there isn't even one screw on every landing during association then what do they expect to happen? The people in here are criminals for fuck's sake, you can't just ask them not to do something."
It's always difficult to keep group discussions about drugs on track; partly because of the general fascination over whether or not I take them, but also because it's evident that drugs tend to play a prominent part of many prisoners' lives outside of jail. With this is mind, it's no surprise that a difficult to detect and potent high is proving so popular, even taking into account the apparent risks attached to using it.
On the basis that it appears near-impossible to keep drugs out of prison, I ask the group whether they think there should be tougher sanctions imposed on those who are caught using drugs, synthetic or otherwise. "Instead of more punishment, just give us something interesting to do all day and then some proper food before bed," Ant says. It's difficult to argue with this; if I was bored, demotivated, and hungry all day every day, there's probably a fair chance I'd be tempted to sit on my bunk and watch The Beast chase down retired accountants from Maidstone as I tripped out on a bit of spice.
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