Newly released data indicates a rise in deaths among male prisoners, linked to synthetic cannabinoids. Researchers at Middlesex University’s Drugs and Alcohol Research Centre analysed the “non-natural” deaths of 129 prisoners in England and Wales between 2015 and 2020. Within those five years, researchers found links to synthetic cannabinoids, colloquially known as “spice” and “black mamba” in 48% of those deaths.
The research team, led by Professor Karen Duke, analysed investigation reports from the prison and probation ombudsman into each of the deaths and found that they highlighted a critical series of failures and shortcomings that severely raised the risk of drug deaths in prison, including understaffing, cuts to prison services, and inadequate support for the most vulnerable prisoners.
Professor Duke told the Guardian that “The system is in complete crisis. That’s the sense you get from these reports.”
In a paper for the Journal of Community Psychology, Duke and her team describe how these various factors interlink within drug related prison deaths: – Prisoners who died often had a pre-existing history of mental health issues and addictions, and would at times, stockpile drugs to take higher doses, or take various drugs at one time. Accordingly, the report demonstrates that a failure of prison officials to spot warning signs, slow emergency responses, combined with high levels of violence and bullying, for people locked up for 23 hours a day, all played a role in the recurring deaths.
Professor Duke notes that 35% of those who died were jailed for property crime and other non-violent offences, and suggests these prisoners might have fared better if given lighter community sentences instead. Expanding on the results of the study, she writes “there is an urgent need for interventions and resources to address the risks, including expanded substance use and mental health treatment, harm reduction initiates, wider sentencing reform, and improvements in the prison regime.”