The Use of Drugs in UK Prisons. A Policy Report

Essay, 2019

14 Pages, Grade: A


Table of contents

Policy issue

Policy background/theoretical overview

Research findings on the issue

Current policy

Policy implications and recommendations



Policy issue

The consumption and trading in drugs is a criminal offence in the United Kingdom. However, recent studies have found that drugs and other forms of illegal substances are easily getting their into the prison settings. More baffling, prisons are expected to be some of the most secure places in the country due large numbers of law enforcement officers (Hustinx et al., 2018). To be able to address the current drug problem in the UK prisons, there is need for an in-depth understanding of the current situation and effectiveness of the existing policies (Kings College London, 2018). This report, therefore, focuses on three main aspects of the issue. Firstly, the author looks at the theoretical background of the existing punishments for criminal offenses such as drug smuggling or trade. Secondly, the author explores the extent of the current situation in the UK prison. That is, the author examines what makes it easier for prisoners in England and Wales to purchase funds, where do they get funds and existence of policy failures. Finally, the author suggests effective ways of addressing the issue of drug use in UK prisons.

Policy background/theoretical overview

The primary goal of criminal justice systems and prison settings is to punish and correct behaviors which are not consistent with the expectations of the society. Contemporary penal science and criminal justice systems can be traced from the classical thinking of the 18th century to modern community based approaches in dealing with crimes and deviant behavior (Shoham, Beck and Kett, 2007). Classical theorist Cesare Beccaria argued that the government must make sure that there is a rational and fair penal structure based on laws which are designed to preserve public safety and order. On the other hand, Jeremy Bentham stated that human actions should be judged as moral or immoral based on the effect it has on the happiness of the people (Pifferi, 2016). These classical theorists recognized that there should internal and external constraints on free will and rationality. In this regard, prisons are designed to protect the general public from people whose exercise of free will may be dangerous to others. However, biological positivists led by Cesare Lombroso suggested that there are people who may be born criminal or some people become criminals as a result of alterations in their brains. Lombroso’s idea on ‘born criminal’ can help in explaining why people will commit crimes such as drug trade even when they are in confined settings such as prisons (Newburn, 2007).

The decision to smuggle or use drugs in prison can also be explained based on neoclassical theories. Neoclassical or rational choice theorists believe that crime should not be attributed to factors such as poverty, IQ, impulsiveness or broken homes but rather it is a personal choice in the context of personal and situational constraints as well as availability of opportunities (Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011). In this regard, criminal actions such as selling and purchasing drugs in prison are perfect examples of the general principle that all human behavior reflects their rational pursuit of utility/pleasure maximization and pain minimization. In addition, rational choice theorists assume that criminally motivated offender will weigh both the consequences and benefits of their actions (Siegel, 2015). For example, a person in prison may engage in criminal activity such as drug trade if he/she believes that further actions for their criminal behavior will not be significantly greater than their current punishment (Newberry, 2013). In this case, they may assume that the benefits of engaging in drug trade within the prison far outweigh the consequences. Lombroso, therefore, suggested that punishment should be arrived at after assessing the needs of specific offender. As a social defense, Lombroso proposes death or life imprisonment for congenital offenders.

Interestingly, governments around the world have responded differently to the growing drug problems in prisons through increased controls and sanctions. According to Cope (2003), modern drug policies have been found to be largely influenced by neoclassical theoretical perspectives. Furthermore, the latest policy developments in prisons are influenced by the general thrust of wider national drugs and criminal justice policy and practice frameworks. For example, some countries are implementing drug treatment and health programmes to limit the chances of re-offending (Hobbs D, 2003). These programmes are intended to support the prisoners in beginning the recovery processes from substance use in prison settings. Recent studies are indicating that increased controls are forcing drug users to enter drug rehabilitation thus helping those programmes to move towards attainment of their political goal of zero tolerance towards drugs.

Research findings on the issue

Recent reviews indicate that drugs are rife in prisons all around the world. Some of the most illegally used in prisons include cannabis, heroin and other forms of narcotics and prescription drugs. Though the current extent of drug problem in unknown, it is estimated that there are more than 75000 drug users that pass through prison systems in England and Wales every year (Foster and Charalambides, 2016). Another study estimated that around three quarters of prisoners in England and Wales had taken illegal drugs while still in prison. In the survey, just under a third of the prisoners indicated that it was easy to get hold of illegal drugs in prison while another survey in 2010 showed that 30 percent of the participants used cannabis while in prison, more than a fifth used heroin while a tenth of the participants had used cocaine (Jenkins, 2018). The studies also indicate that drug routes to prisons are varied and numerous and differ from one prison to another. To circumvent the security systems in prisons, smugglers and users normally require sophisticated planning and preparation. For instance, drugs entering prisons are carefully disguised to avoid smell alerts. Sometimes, packaging is smothered with marmite. In addition, synthetic cannabis sprayed onto paper that is smoked is also difficult to detect.

The use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) had also significantly increased in the recent past. Though NPS are similar to traditional illegal drugs, their chemical structures are altered so as to evade current laws. Currently, the most dominant form of NPS in UK and Wales prisons is called “Spice” which is a synthetic cannabinoid. According to a recent survey, prison seizures of Spice increased from 15 to 737 between 2010 and 2014 (McFadden, Young and Markham, 2015). Since Spice was not tested, it is difficult to determine the proportion of prisoners using Spice. Technically, most of the NPS are legal though not approved for human consumption. These substances have similar effects as traditional illegal drugs such as loss of consciousness and seizures, paranoia and hallucinations. Besides, misuse of prescription drugs is also increasing in UK prisons (Skoll, 2009). Normally, prescription drugs are used to treat illnesses. However, prisoners divert the use of these medications for recreational needs.

The UK government’s failure to conclusively address the problem of drug addiction in prison has massive costs. Firstly, this failure undermines the security of prisons and effectiveness of prisons in realising the goal of correction. That is, it makes prisoners less engaged in rehabilitation programmes thus contributing to high rates of reoffending. Jenkins (2018) showed that two in every five prisoners in England and Wales commit crime in order to get money to purchase drugs. Secondly, the drug problem in prisons also has massive financial costs. For instance, a 2013 study by the Home Office indicated that 45 percent of all acquisitive crime in England and Wales were caused by heroin and cocaine users (Home Office, 2018). This is estimated to cost the government up to £4.7 billion annually. Thirdly, drug use in prisons is encouraged with the ease of smuggling drugs into prisons. Drugs in UK prisons are smuggled via social visits, postage, corrupt staff, thrown over prison walls and new or returning prisoners.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Use of Drugs in UK Prisons. A Policy Report
Kenyatta University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
drugs, prions, policy, report
Quote paper
Difrine Madara (Author), 2019, The Use of Drugs in UK Prisons. A Policy Report, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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