Reaction to Prison Drug Strategy

Chief Exec’s Blog

Phoenix Chief Exec Karen Biggs discusses the release of the HM Prison & Probation Services Prison Drug Strategy


The HM Prison & Probation Service’s Prison Drug Strategy was published this week and whilst the distraction of Brexit could be an excuse for the lack of attention it has had, I fear that even in a Brexit-free parallel universe we wouldn’t see much public commentary on this important area of criminal justice strategy.

I have run a charity delivering support and treatment to people who use drugs and alcohol for 12 years. I still get fazed by the stunning lack of knowledge and interest in the causes and consequences of problematic drug use on our communities.

The impact drug use has on our prisons and people in prison is no exception. There are many ways you can end up in one of various types of establishments in the custodial estate; through a conviction for non-violent or violent offences. Some people get there because of their substance misuse. But people also use drugs for the first time in prison. We support people with their substance misuse issues in 20 prisons in England. We have been delivering substance misuse services for 50 years and have developed a wealth of organisational experience and expertise along the way.

In June of last year I gave evidence to the ACMD working group investigating drug misuse by prisoners, and the harms to these individuals, when transferring between custody and the community.

Before I gave that evidence I spent time with the real experts in Phoenix, our staff and service users in those prisons. We looked at things that help and hinder engagement in treatment and living a drug-free life in prison and on-release. We came up with 4 ‘asks’;  

  • Measures to relieve the pressure within the prison regime - to help control sup-ply of drugs into prisons

  • Give more time to facilitate recovery and treatment programmes within the prison and sensible prison release approaches

  • Enable strategic leadership across the criminal justice system to foster a sense of ownership

  • Streamlined commissioning processes that supported a smooth transition between prison and community

So we are pleased to see in the Prison Drug Strategy’s commitments to restrict the supply of drugs into our prisons, reduce the demand for drugs and efforts to support people to engage in treatment and get the help they need.

Some of the initiatives identified in the strategy are long overdue, for example identifying how many people die in our prisons each year from drug-related issues. Some things, like the use of peer supporters, are already a familiar and vital element of effective treatment and support in many prisons.

The conversations I have had with prison governors across the country, for over a decade, have demonstrated their fierce commitment to doing the best they can for the people in their care with the resources they have. As those resources have reduced over that time the pressures and challenges have increased.

The strategy is a good start and now we need to ensure the people who can make it work are empowered to deliver it.

Until we as a society accept there are vulnerable people in prison and they deserve the very best care support and treatment services, I fear, we will still be struggling to make the most of the opportunity for rehabilitation that prison offers. We also risk losing the potential of a safer, healthier and happier society for everyone.

Phoenix have long known that it takes more than treatment alone to lead to a successful recovery. No matter how hard it gets we will continue to do our very best in the most challenging of environments to help people who want our help.

Phoenix Futures is a registered charity in England and Wales (No 284880) and in Scotland (No SCO39008); Company Limited by Guarantee Number 1626869; Registered Provider of Social Housing with Homes England (H3795).