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Howard League blog · 12 Oct 2018

The rising number of people dying in prison by unexplained causes

We get notifications when people die in prisons. Over the years we have monitored the number of people dying by suicide, through natural causes and due to homicide. In the last three years the number of deaths that appear to be unexplained has soared, and I think there is something quite different happening inside prisons that no one has really grasped.

According to the latest figures we have, 76 people have died so far this year for whom the prison service is awaiting further information.

This is treble the number at any one time last year. Many of them were young people, some in their 20s and 30s. It looks to me like the majority of these people will have died from a cause linked to ingesting a new psychoactive substance, or ‘spice’.

There is an epidemic of spice inside some prisons and it is causing much of the instability and violence. Anyone who has seen the films shown on Channel 4 News about people who are street homeless will have seen that spice is often part of their daily existence. These are the very people who go into and out of prisons for short periods for nuisance offences. They are some of the spice customers inside prisons, although not exclusively as many of the people dying in these unexplained circumstances have been convicted of more serious crimes. The common thread is that the men and women are outside society; they are the forgotten and the ostracised.

We need new responses to a new problem

Spice is a different drug to the sort of drugs slushing around for the last century or so. Cannabis, cocaine and even heroin have been classless in that City traders, students and professionals have taken them as well as the poor. Spice is overwhelmingly a drug taken by the poor.

Once in prison, they are the victims of organised gangs who find the market of the incarcerated extremely lucrative. People force their families to go into debt to fund their habits, staff are bullied or bribed into taking in the contraband, and debt inside prisons is causing massive problems. In some prisons the cell carries the debt over so that a new inhabitant is responsible for paying off the gangs even when the person who took the drug has moved on to another prison.

Violence and intimidation is now out of control. So I understand why the prison officers’ union campaigned to get armed with PAVA spray as it is a cry of desperation, even if it will be counter-productive.

We need new responses to a new problem. We need to save lives and reduce violence.

I concede that technological and security measures may be part of the solution, but I contend that is only going to make things better if they are combined with significant improvements in prisoner-staff relationships, getting prisons active and purposeful and, of course, reducing the number of prisoners so that this can happen.

Simply tooling up prison officers will not deter a desperately sad young man locked for months in virtual solitary confinement from succumbing to the gangs by taking what he knows to be a potentially fatal drug.

I attended the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody this week and I asked it to look at this whole issue as a matter of urgency. It is a scandal that, among all the people who have died in prison this year, there are 76 for whom no one knows how or why, nor how we are going to put a stop to it.


  • Trevor Ellis says:

    I’ve never been in prison and I hope that will never change because I suffer very badly from depression and I believe that it is exacerbated by the anxiety which I have had since my childhood.

    In the past, I used cannabis mixed with strong lager in order to function from day to day.

    Of course being high and drunk at the same time isn’t exactly the nicest way to feel
    but I know from bitter experience that the combination of an anxiety disorder and depression is worse and when a person feels that way each day it is difficult to get on in life.

    That is why people with anxiety disorders are more likely to become drug users and consumers of alcohol because they use those things to control anxiety and depression.

    I would argue also that people with anxiety disorders are less likely to get on in life and are more prone to turn to crime to get by.

    That of course then leads to prison and then the depression they suffered prior to being imprisoned is more than likely to grow worse because the conditions in UK prisons are more conducive to making inmates more unhappy and stressed out which makes them more prone to drug misuse.

    I reckon that a large percentage of prisoners have some kind of mental health problem which makes them prone to using drugs such as spice.

    As the effect of spice on their mental health begins to show,
    that then leads to a higher level of anxiety which in many cases leads to depression of a kind that is more intense due to the appalling conditions they find themselves in.

    Some people somehow find the will to survive but some don’t and they tend to be the ones that begin to feel so hopeless that death begins to feel like the only way out.

    That has become a pattern which has been allowed to repeat itself in spite of the regular calls for reform from prison officers, to prisoners and last but no means least from Frances Crook.

    I just wish that the people that run the country and the prisons were like Ms. Crook
    because I believe that would make such a difference
    simply because she is considerate whereas government ministers tend to be hard of heart and tight-fisted and that is why the sad situation in UK prisons is growing worse by the day.

    Logic also suggests that if current conditions in UK prisons are leading to inmates attempting suicide rather than reform
    then it is clear that something is very wrong and Frances Crook has identified that
    but the problem is that the government clearly does not heed good advice.

    That is why I reckon that UK prisons and its inmates would probably be better if the government paid attention to what Frances Crook says about penal reform.

    No inmate should attempt to take their own lives as a consequence of the harsh conditions
    which a succession of home secretaries have allowed to grow worse over the decades.

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