It’s all too easy for people to smuggle Spice into prisons up and down the country, feeding a prison population slowly dying from addiction.
‘I got offered Spice first thing in the morning the day after I landed in Strangeways’, recalls Tommy, a recovered addict in his twenties, from Oldham, who knows all too well the devastating effects synthetic cannabinoids can have on a person stuck in a six-metre by six-metre cell for 20 hours a day.
UNILAD set out to explore how Spice addiction affects prison populations:
Rob Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, has studied the prison market for synthetic cannabinoids for years, meeting people whose lives are turned upside down after their first hit.
He told UNILAD Spice is ‘entrenched’ in prison populations:
The first time I was made aware of Spice as an emerging drug problem was in the prison system in 2011. Most people you speak to say they were first introduced to Spice in prison.
The prison system is basically churning out Spice users into the community.
There’s no doubt many inmates encounter Spice behind bars – voluntarily or not – but how synthetic cannabinoids became part of the furniture of prisons up and down the country is a more complex story.
Moreover, the extreme lengths to which people go to smuggle Spice into prisons show just how much demand there is for the substance across British prison institutions.
Spice is the most popular drug of choice behind bars, eclipsing heroin and cannabis, with a third (33 per cent) of populations using in the last month, and 46 per cent of those users admitting to taking Spice daily, according to a User Voice 2016 report commissioned by worried NHS bosses.
So, inevitably, members of the prison community claim Spice is transported into HMP Manchester in a number of ways, each more innovative – and illegal – than the last.
Shaun, a twenty-something homeless man with a synthetic cannabinoid, crack and heroin addiction, told UNILAD he’s seen Spice spread like wildfire through HMP Manchester – better known by its former name, Strangeways.
As Shaun walks the city streets in the shadow of Strangeways tower, he recalls:
I first tried Spice on H wing in Strangeways in cell 21. Me and Titch bought a joint on the yard for a fiver.
People are putting pepper on the outside of packages so they get past the dogs and sending Spice down through netting in drones, in Forest Bank too.
They’ll get an A4 strip of paper and spray it, let it dry, you’ve got Spice ready to roll.
Tommy says he also knows fellow inmates who have received letters from friends on the outside doused in lighter fluid and dried for two days, which they’ve ripped up, rolled up and smoked.
Everyone calls it ‘Paper Spice’.
Tommy has been able to kick his Spice habit, with the help of the volunteer organisation Lifeshare who supported him through hellish withdrawals and found him a place to live in Moss Side, Manchester.
Julie Boyle, the Criminal Justice Lead at Lifeshare who has served a custodial sentence herself, tells UNILAD Tommy and Shaun are right to be concerned by the proliferation of Spice in prisons.
She says manufacturers and dealers take advantage of the pliability of Spice:
For example, there’s liquid Spice you can spray onto paper. A kiddie does a drawing on that paper, that paper goes into prison… You’ve got a normal cigarette and dip it into the liquid and they’re selling that for a tenner.
She claims criminal gangs pushing the substance on the vulnerable are ‘manoeuvring their way around the legislation’ at alarming speed and ‘by the time it takes to analyse something and find out if it’s psychoactive they’re onto the next batch’.
Rob Ralphs notes the ease with which some smuggle – and smoke – Spice in jail:
It’s hard to detect. It doesn’t really smell, where a substance like skunk would, making it safer to smoke without punishment in a cell, and it doesn’t show up in mandatory drug tests.
The User Voice report found both drug-dealing prisoners and staff were regarded as having strong financial motives for getting it into their prison, and respondents widely agreed Spice had become the ‘most valuable commodity inside prison’.
There’s a reason, immoral though it may be, for the supply – but why the demand?
Well, 69 per cent of users asked said they chosen Spice ‘because there is no test for it’, with 59 per cent finding it ‘easy to access’, 54 per cent saying it alleviates boredom due to ‘a lack of purposeful tasks’ and 41 per cent saying they use Spice ‘to cope’.
Yet only one per cent of the population thought Spice was a safe option.
The one per cent is wrong.
So, why would an inmate rather smoke a life-threatening substance than look at a drawing their child has sent them in prison, you might ask.
Well, the properties of Spice might make it undetectable to drugs testing, but they also create confusion among some inmates, Ralphs says, adding he has heard reports of prisoners ‘picking up a rollie they think contains tobacco, smoking it and collapsing two minutes later’ because it actually contains the synthetic cannabis.
Some users also report mistaking a joint of Spice – sometimes known as ‘fake weed’ – for cannabis itself. Beyond the misleading street name for Spice, the similarities are actually few and far between.
In fact, Ralphs said:
It struck me, when speaking to prisoners who use Spice, that it’s got aspects of almost every other type of drug but cannabis.
He compares Spice psychoses to those experienced on LSD, the dissociative effects to ketamine, the aggression with crack cocaine or alcohol, as well as the addictiveness, warm highs and devastating withdrawals symptoms to those of heroin.
Together, he went onto explain, the effects of this highly dangerous, more potent third generation of Spice combine into a cocktail of ‘functionality’ which appeals to members of vulnerable communities like the prison population and rough sleepers.
An anonymous homeless 20-year-old from Manchester told UNILAD:
[When I smoke Spice] I feel like I’m lying in memory foam. Floating. Comfortable. I love the sleep of Spice. I sleep all night. It numbs everything. When you’ve not got it you’re uncomfortable. You can’t sleep, feel like you’ve got worms inside you or something.
It’s an all-too-familiar reaction, at odds with the rationalisation of recreational marijuana use.
Spice is commonly – and irresponsibly – called the ‘zombie’ drug for the way it disorientates and knocks users out cold for hours at a time.
Ralphs’ research shows it’s less about relaxing and more about forgetting reality:
It’s very rare people would say they use it to chill out. The reason it’s become associated with the prison system and homeless community is because it’s popularity among those communities is linked to its functionality.
People use it to block out reality or kill time or to take them away from reality, whether that’s sleeping in a car park or being locked up in a cell for 20 hours a day.
Some recount how they’ve been in prison for three years but it feels like three months. It has an ability to condense time; a ‘bird killer’.
But the consequences don’t end there. According to the Ministry of Justice, seizures from Spice in prisons in England and Wales have increased exponentially since 2010.
Ralphs recounts seeing ‘extreme’ side effects such as bleeding from the eyes, adding:
Quite often prison guards would show us footage recorded on their body cams of people fitting for up to a half hour. You’d have eight guards trying to restrain someone in the throes of drug induced psychosis.
The impact on mental health, including suicide ideation, suicidal thoughts and self-harm, is also unlike those of any other drug he’s researched. Just over four in 10 respondents in User Voice’s peer review who use Spice also self-harm.
Tommy calls Spice the ‘easiest escape drug’ out there. Spice passes the time, he says, and gives someone ‘without purpose something to chase all day’. But it’s a constant and vicious cycle.
Homeless people have told us countless time they go in clean and come out of prison addicted. Some swapped from heroin to Spice because its cheaper, but find it harder to get off Spice than heroin.
While Tommy might be living proof it’s not always a losing battle for addicts, he now faces the challenges of a former addict who has refused to become just another statistic in the sad case of Spice deaths.
Talking about his two-year probationary period and 18-month suspended sentence, the Oldham man fears breaching his deal by being just 15 minutes late to his Tuesday appointments because, he says, if he were to go back to Strangeways he’d resort to relapsing on Spice simply to pass the time.
Ralphs said the war on drugs is a failing and never-ending cycle:
If you bring them into the criminal justice system under a possession offence they’d go to prison with a custodial sentence, which as we know, is full of Spice anyway.
If you criminalise users and put them into prison that’s just self-perpetuating.
Although Boyle accepts Spice is illegal, she agrees the system of justice and rehabilitation is failing the masses and ‘costs millions of pounds to try and fix’ the damage.
Once [users are] hooked everything else falls apart. No benefits, no accommodation, no families. They lose everything. The ripple effect is almost immediate.
As soon as you go into prison, your benefits are stopped, you have to re-register with the GP. So they’re coming out with a whole heap of problems as well as needing to find somewhere to live for the night to keep safe.
Boyle has had her own safety threatened by dealers and manufacturers due to her outspoken stance on the illegal production of Spice, forced underground by the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) of May 2016.
The then-Home Secretary, Theresa May, proposed and passed the law which took the so-called legal high out of regulated, clearly-marked and sealed packets of Spice in head shops and placed it into snap bags and the hands of the criminal black market, thus allowing its potency to increase 800-fold, at Ralph’s estimate.
While the PSA outlaws the production and supply of new psychoactive substances outside prisons, it also outlaws intent of those in prison to use knowingly, and can lead to punishment of ‘up to 2 years in prison for possessing a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution’.
Beyond the bars, Superintendent Chris Hill, Greater Manchester Police’s commander for the city centre, told UNILAD enforcement action has seen GMP ‘tackle dealers and use intelligence to target organised crime gangs across Greater Manchester’ resulting in 55 arrests for possession with intent to supply spice since January 2017 in the city centre alone.
Additionally GMP have also arrested 90 others for being in possession of the drug, ‘with many of these people directed to support services’.
These are the vulnerable being exploited by criminal gangs, both in prison – where User Voices reports Spice is creating a ‘culture of debt’ and dividing the once ‘united’ prison community – and upon release.
Boyle says if Manchester wants to see Spice-free streets we need to stop judging a lifestyle most wouldn’t choose and do right by marginalised communities.
Citing the example of some of her clients, she dubbed the process of release ‘a joke’:
Four lads were released from Forest Bank on Friday. Why would you let someone out of prison on a Friday knowing they’ve got nowhere to stay when services aren’t always open on the weekend?
That’s going to steer them towards committing further offences. They might have to steal to get some food, have to beg to get a night in a hostel or something. It’s a joke.
With custodial short sentences, they’ve got an immediate 12 month probationary period. Our clients have chaotic lifestyles and it simply doesn’t fit. They’re being set up to fail by releasing them like that.
Calling the prison system a ‘revolving door’, Boyle recounted:
One of the lads I’ve worked with for six years has been in prison 12 times during that period. He’s still no further on in life. He’s still falling into the same trap with the same people, committing offences, short sentences, back out, repeat.
Ralphs suggests the problem has been compounded by shortage of prison staff, meaning less interaction for inmates and higher rates of mind-numbing boredom, as well as restricted regimes and operational pressures imposed during times of austerity.
Meanwhile, there have been calls for better peer-support services for addicts, more meaningful ways to spend time in the prison system, better education among inmates, better training for prison staff in treating Spice overdoses, and most importantly, better mental health services to prevent Spice use at its root cause.
Here’s help from the NHS to overcome addiction:
If we can get to those root causes we’ll be able to tackle this thing. Criminalising it make absolutely no difference whatsoever. It’s not a deterrent.
After all, criminalising Spice doesn’t stop someone having an addiction.
So, to Shaun, who sits in his usual spot on Deansgate underneath a luminous LED sign advertising free weekend phone calls and unlimited data, he places the blame firmly at the feet of the law which criminalised addicts for ‘f*cking his life up and f*cking Manchester up’.
Laughing as he takes a toke on his rolled Spice joint, he jokes:
I think they do it on purpose, me. So they can flood the jails with drugs and the screws can claim compensation for Spice inhalation.
As the Spice begins to take effect, you can just hear Shaun mumble ‘Mamba’ and ‘Man Down’ – the street names for strains of third-generation synthetic cannabinoids he was listing for UNILAD moments before – as his head droops in a stupor and cars sweep past the Armani building towards Piccadilly.
UNILAD has contacted the Governor of HMP Manchester and is awaiting comment at time of writing.
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A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.