Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tories in 'get tough on drugs' shock

In an entirely predictable development "Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie yesterday declared her intention to make Scottish prisons drug-free". Read the full story in the Herald here. . Whilst drug free prisons seem like a worthy aspiration - certainly easier to argue for than the 1998 UN drug agency commitment to 'A DRUG FREE WORLD' by 2008 (to which the UK is a signatory), her comments have a similar air of disconnection from reality.

Firstly it needs to be pointed out that every home secretary in the modern era has called for drug free prisons and none have got anywhere near achieving it. It was infact the last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who introduced mandatory random drug testing in prisons as part of a similar committment. Did it work? Well, 17,000+ positive tests a year suggest not. Fill a prison with drug dealers and drug addicts and it is maybe not surprising that '39% of prisoners said they had used drugs at least once whilst in their current prison, 25% had used in the past month and 16% in the past week' according to this Home office report. The same report notes that 1% of inmates moved from cannabis to heroin to avoid being rumbled by the testing regime.

Another reason why more people use drugs in prison than on the outside is because they are miserable, traumatic and depressing places to be - people use drugs as a means of escape or self medication. The above Home office report notes that 0.7% of inmates actually started using drugs whilst in prison. Prison is clearly a totally unsuitable place to be addressing issues of drug dependency, especially when it is combined with deep seated emotional or mental health problems, as is frequently the case with drug dependent offenders. It is a bizarrely circuitous logic that argues for the criminalisation of drug users and drug markets - that creates crime and mass criminalisation - and then argues that prison based rehabilitation is the best way to reduce future offending. Goldie should realise that it is the 'get tough' criminal justice approach that she supports that has created the problem that she is now advocating yet another 'get tough' solution to.

There is, more to the point, no evidence that the get tough approach will eliminate drugs from prisons. Even high security prisons are awash with drugs - and restrictions on visitors will not prevent them as numerous other supply routes exist including prison staff and the numerous other flows of goods into the prison.

Wouldn't it be great if Annabel Goldie, or any politician for that matter, changed the record for once and stopped talking up tough drug-war nonsense and regurgitating failed policies. Goldie and friends might more usefully want to ask:

- why our prisons are overflowing with dependent drug users in the first place
- whether the £37,000 a year of tax payer money it costs to imprison a dependent drug user couldn't be better spent on residential rehab and other help rebuilding their lives, like counselling and mental health services, employment training and so on.
- whether branding a drug user with the stigma of a criminal record, and putting them in a cage with hundreds of other users, dealers and criminals is really going to help them get better, or get on in life.
- whether just maybe, after decades of counter-productive failure using prison as a primary response to one of our most serious public health problems, its time to have a bit of a rethink and stop trotting out the same old rubbish.

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