Legal highs, also known as novel psychoactive substances (NPS) have been linked to roughly 16% of deaths in prisons between 2013 and 2015, according to Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
Mr Newcomen announced the findings in a speech to conservative think tank Reform. He stated that 39 deaths in prison where the prisoner was known, or strongly suspected, to have been using NPS before their death. According to data from charity inquest, there were 242 deaths in prisons overall in that time.
‘NPS are a wide array of relatively new and regularly changing substances, for which testing is in its infancy,’ said Mr Newcomen. ‘ And, of course, many NPS are readily available in the community and most are cheap. These features compound the difficulty of reducing supply and demand for NPS in prisons. They also make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about health impact and links to fatalities.’
Of the deaths, two were from unkown causes; two were the result of drug toxicity and the drugs included NPS. Six were the result of natural causes in which NPS may have played a part. In one case, for example, the prisoner died of a heart attack after taking NPS. Another death was a homicide of a prisoner involved with NPS by another prisoner suspected of smoking NPS. The remaining 28 deaths were self-inflicted. Some involved psychotic episodes potentially resulting from NPS, for others NPS appeared to exacerbate vulnerability.
In his speech, Mr Newcomen outlined a number of recommendations for healthcare workers and other prison staff to tackle the use of NPS. He stated that prison staff needed better information about NPS, and how to spot that a prisoner is taking them, and that healthcare providers in prison should make appropriate education and treatment services available.
‘Commendably, prison and health care services have begun to act on this learning. But there is a long, long way to go,’ added Mr Newcomen. ‘Meanwhile, as one prisoner put it to me: “spice is a bird-killer, but we need to tell people it’s also a prisoner killer”.’