Prisons to introduce tests for legal highs in bid to reduce violence

Prisons minister tells MPs the tests will detect substances such as spice and black mamba that are linked to rising levels of disorder

Ministers claim the introduction of new drug tests able to detect legal highs such as spice and black mamba will prove a ?gamechanger? in curbing the rising tide of violence in jails across England and Wales.

Andrew Selous, the prisons minister, told MPs that the introduction early next year of tests developed by the Home Office?s centre for applied technology to detect psychoactive substances will help authorities ?get on the front foot? as they tackle violence in jails. The drive will include trying to restrict the use of drones to smuggle drugs into prison, after eight attempts were uncovered so far this year.

The latest official ?safety in custody? statistics for prisons in England and Wales show that the number of serious assaults have risen by 80% in the past two years to 2,480, self-harm incidents are up 21% to 28,881 in the past year, and self-inflicted deaths are at a 10-year high of 95 in the 12 months to the end of September. Homicides behind bars have risen to seven in the past 12 months ? the highest since 1978.

Selous acknowledged to the Commons justice select committee that ministers regard the rising levels of violence inside jails as unacceptable. They say the root causes lie in an unexpected increase in prison numbers, a more violent mix of offenders including young gang members, and the impact of psychoactive substances such as spice and black mamba.

Sorry, your browser is unable to play this video. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Spice: the drug ?more devilish than weed? sweeping British prisons

The rising assault levels led the Prison Officers? Association (POA) three weeks ago to accuse the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of a ?wholesale failure? to address the ?dangerous and deteriorating situation? inside prisons. The POA put ministers on 28 days? notice to improve the situation or face action by prison officers to reduce the health and safety risks.

But the warning was dismissed by Michael Spurr, the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, as exaggerated and unfair, and he suggested its timing was linked to the submission of evidence to the prison service?s pay review body.

He acknowledged, however, that the increased violence was linked to a more toxic mix of prisoners serving longer sentences, staff shortages and the impact of psychoactive substances.

Spurr revealed that a drive to recruit a further 1,700 prison officers by next April is under way and should give a net boost of 540 prison officers. He said the prison service?s operational budget had been protected in the autumn statement despite a 15% cut in the MoJ budget. The prisons chief confirmed there are still 14 jails operating a restricted regime, with staff drafted in from other parts of the country under a detached duty scheme.

He said there was evidence from the chief inspector of prisons that jails were turning a corner, and getting to grips with the bullying and intimidation that arose from the illegal market in spice and other new psychoactive substances was a major part of that.

Selous told MPs: ?Spice has a particular appeal in prisons not least because up to to now we have not been able to test for it. It is unbelievably frustrating but thanks to the Home Office centre for applied technology we now have the ability to test. I believe that will be a gamechanger. With the measures in the psychoactive substances bill I believe we will be able to get on the front foot.?

The new bill will make the possession of spice and other psychoactive substances illegal inside prison, and will make it a criminal offence to throw anything over the wall of a prison. The prison service is also training 320 sniffer dogs to detect legal highs.

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