Tox Tuesday: NPS in prisons reach epidemic proportions

October 11, 2016

Referred to as a “game-changer” inside jails and prison systems today, designer drugs, including various types of synthetic marijuana, such as spice and K2, are now showing up at alarming rates inside jails and prisons both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Also known as new psychoactive substances, or NPS, these drugs are leading to an upsurge of violence and self-harm behind bars and has led some facilities to institute drug testing programs for their prisoners. 

“I am clear that NPS have been a game-changer in terms of reducing safety in prison, with troubling links to our rising numbers of suicides, as well as to other types of death, including deaths from drug toxicity, apparent natural causes and even homicides,” Nigel Newcomen, prisons and probation ombudsman in England and Wales, said in a recent article.

The article explains that prisons and jails have witnessed an increased amount of psychotic episodes, resulting from designer drug use, as well as prisoners experiencing exacerbated vulnerability, triggering suicide and self-harm. In addition, Newcomen said the availability and affordability of synthetic drugs has made them "attractive to organized and semi-organized crime" inside prison.

For example, in one instance criminals are said to have pocketed £20,000 (approximately $25,000 USD) for designer drugs worth just £400 (approximately $500 USD) outside the prison walls.

“Prisoners use smuggled [phones] to order in contraband from criminal associates outside. The contents of the parcels cost next to nothing, but in prison they are worth a fortune,” Glyn Travis, assistant secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said in another article.

In another report, 805 prisoners from nine different U.K. prisons were surveyed and it was found that a third had used spice in the previous month. The majority of survey participants estimated between half and nearly all prisoners had used spice at some point while in prison. The peer-led inquiry, also found that prisoners believed the growing popularity of spice had contributed to an increase in violence, bullying, mental and physical ill health, and even death.

“Spice has taken over the drug culture in prison,” said a respondent. “It’s reached epidemic levels.”

In fact, in one U.K. prison, it’s reported that 14% of inmates surveyed said it’s easier to get drugs than clothes or bedsheets. This number has more than doubled since the same question was asked in 2014 and has led justice secretary, Liz Truss, to order mandatory testing for NPS in prisons across England and Wales.

"Safety in prisons is fundamental to the proper functioning of our justice system and a vital part of our reform plans,” a prison service spokeswoman said in the article. "There are a number of factors, including the availability of psychoactive substances, which must be tackled. From today we are rolling out mandatory nationwide testing of synthetic drugs, which will help to end the flow of these dangerous drugs into our prisons.”

However, not everyone thinks mandatory drug testing in prisons will solve the issues they are currently facing. According to Tom Dyer, Harrison County, West Virginia defense attorney, drug testing “wouldn’t serve any purpose.”

“What would you do if you found them using, add a few years to their sentence? That would be throwing away good money after bad,” Dyer said in another article.

While he believes drug abuse in jails and prisons is an epidemic, Dyer said he thinks increased mandatory searches, more correctional officers, and a cut down on visitations, could lessen the amount of drug abuse and the related problems.

“Drugs are dumped in garbage cans off site, in flower beds on site, they’re mailed in, and we’ve even had inmates while on work detail with the state have individuals drop off drugs for them, anyone from mothers, sisters and girlfriends bring them drugs,” Taylor County, West Virginia prosecutor, John Bord said in the article.

Regardless of how officials believe this problem can be solved, many of those involved believe the problem of drug abuse is not something that starts after inmates enter the prison system. Instead, the uptick in synthetic drug use within the prison system is echoing that of what many police departments in the U.S. and in Europe are finding on the outside, as cases of overdose and overdose deaths from synthetic drugs continue to rise.

According to a recent U.S. report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, of the 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from substance abuse addiction. Another 458,000 inmates either have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes, committed their offenses to get money to buy drugs, or were previously incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation.

The report also found that only 11% of inmates with substance abuse and addiction disorders receive any treatment during their incarcerations. The report also goes on explain that if all inmates in need of treatment received such services, the nation would see economic benefits in just one year — even if only 10% of the inmates treated remained sober, crime-free and employed. The report found that for each inmate who remained sober, employed and crime-free, the nation would save $91,000 per year.

Mark Johnson, the founder of User Voice, an advocacy group created to help prisoners with drug abuse problems, said that to think prisoners are taking spice because they are bored, ignores a deeper issue: “People are going into prison — and coming out — with undiagnosed and untreated existing mental health and substance abuse issues, he said. “Reports clearly show the current health and substance misuse services are not fit for purpose.”

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Category: Toxicology