The Impact of Psychoactive Substances on UK Prisons

Impact of psychoactive substances UK Prisons

Recently our focus has been on the one year anniversary of The Psychoactive Substances Act. While much of the attention has focused on the impact these have on the general public, there has also been a significant interest and spotlight on the relatively easy access to psychoactive substances in UK prisons. This blog will look at how UK prisons have been impacted by the availability and devastating impacts of substances; along with discussing the strain that is being placed on prison staff and services.

In September 2016 we posted an article relating to the increase in drug use in light of a report produced regarding HMP Bedford. The report looked at a host of issues that were identified back in 2014, with the aim of seeing if they had been addressed. From the report, 12 of the initial 72 recommendations had been implemented. The report highlighted the glaring problems within the criminal justice system, and that UK prisons are experiencing significant issues; with drugs playing a key part of the problem.


Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, in his 2015/16 Annual Report stated that in one prison, there had been over 30 recorded finds of psychoactive substances and almost 60 prisoners were recorded as being under the influence of these drugs in the same period. Furthermore, on one single day, 12 prisoners had to be treated for the effects of these substances.

A thematic review by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons stated that drugs in prisons is an ongoing issue. Different drugs are available in prisons. However there is generally less choice, lower purity and less availability, but at a higher price than in the community. In prisons, there has traditionally been a preference for using depressants such as heroin and cannabis, which helped prisoners to ‘kill time’, by using stimulants such as cocaine, crack cocaine and ecstasy, which many associate with a nightclub or a party scene in the community.

It is the increasing levels of drug consumption within UK Prisons that prompted a review in December 2016, to investigate why some prisons have required so many ambulances to deal with call-outs relating to psychoactive substances, which have in turn resulted in a completion of community resources. It states that in at least one prison, ambulances are known as ‘mambulances’.


A decade ago, psychoactive substances were virtually unheard of. From almost nothing in 2008, the substances, which mimic the effects of traditional drugs like ecstasy and cannabis, are now thought to have been taken at least once by nearly a million people (937,000) aged 16-59 in the UK. According to the EU, nowhere in Europe is the problem quite to acute as it is in the UK, with many campaigners and police saying the drugs are destroying lives and fueling anti-social behaviour.

The popularity of psychoactive substances is due to a number of different reasons. Within prisons, the substances prove to be popular with inmates due to the relative lack of detection. Many substances are colourless in appearance and odourless in smell. This makes them virtually undetectable by conventional on-site testing. Furthermore, their ability to go undetected or unspotted means they can be accessed and sourced by prisoners quite easily. An example of this was evident when HMP Bedford witnessed a drone delivery over its boundary walls to prisoners inside. With prisoners willing to go to such lengths to obtain psychoactive substances it is clear that UK prisons have major problem with trying to control the use and possession within its facilities.


Prisons across the UK are experiencing a dramatic strain on resources as a result of inmates consuming psychoactive substances. In February 2017, The Independent published a story which stated how a prison officer collapsed and convulsed on the floor after accidentally inhaling the synthetic cannabis substitute ‘Spice’. The incident happened at HMP Northumberland, where it is claimed that inmates were, in effect, running the prison.

With such apparent easy access to psychoactive substances within prisons, staff are finding themselves under extreme pressure to cope with the burdens this places on the system. The rapidly increasing prevalence of psychoactive substances in prisons is placing additional demands on prison and security staff resources in terms of supply disruption, searching and detection activities.

As a consequence of demands placed on prison services, and the varying make-up of psychoactive substances entering prisons, this has inevitably led to deaths. The Prisons Ombudsman reported that between June 2013 and January 2016 there were 58 fatalities where the prisoner was known, or strongly suspected, to have been using psychoactive substances before their death. Since the legislation has been introduced, head shops which sold the substances have since closed down. However this has caused the selling to go onto the street and into prisons, meaning that the substances are even more dangerous in content and may lead to increased death rates.

About Randox Testing Services

Randox Testing Services is at the forefront of developing tests to detect the presence of NPS.

In the endless pursuit of creating innovative tests for new and emerging legal highs, our expertise sets us apart from the rest of the industry. We provide tests for identifying NPS and operate to provide accurate results and customer satisfaction. For more information on our tests for psychoactive substances visit or contact us at