A zero-tolerance crackdown and a new recovery wing are helping Leeds Prison fight back in the war on drugs. Sam Casey was given exclusive behind-the-walls access to find out how a change in approach is working.
Dead pigeons, tennis balls and babies’ nappies.
They might not sound like the ultimate weapons in the drug smuggler’s arsenal.
But they’re all items rumoured in the past to have been used to traffic narcotics into Leeds Prison.
Like many prisons, the Armley jail has faced an ongoing battle to stop drugs breaching its walls.
Now, however, thanks to a zero-tolerance crackdown, bosses appear to be winning the war.
The proportion of inmates failing random mandatory drug tests (MDTs) fell from 26 per cent in December 2010 to under four per cent in January of this year.
Since a dedicated ‘recovery wing’ was opened in September to help inmates get off drugs, none of the prisoners on the wing has tested positive for drugs.
Kate Pounder, governor of the recovery wing, said: “The MDT failure rate is the lowest it has been since records began.”
The results are an indication of how far the prison has come.
After its last inspection in March 2010, Armley faced criticisms over its drug problems.
The inspectors’ report said: “The level of illicit drug use was high, and there was insufficient attention to supply-reduction.”
More than one in four prisoners told inspectors it was easy to get hold of drugs inside.
Worryingly, 12 per cent said they’d developed an addiction while they were inside.
When the current governor, Paul Baker, was appointed at the end of 2010 he immediately laid down seven key priorities, among which was a pledge to reduce drug and alcohol dependency.
A campaign was launched in February last year highlighting the zero-tolerance approach to drug misuse in prison. Posters reinforcing the message are visible throughout the jail.
Mr Baker said: “We began to target known dealers in the prison to let them know we would be dealing robustly with them.”
One of the major challenges the prison faced was stopping drugs getting in.
Almost as if to illustrate the potential problems, last March a cannabis factory containing about £150,000 worth of plants was found just yards from the prison walls.
Miss Pounder, who at 30 is one of the youngest governors in the prison and is head of drugs strategy, said: “We’re vulnerable because of where we are – in the middle of a mass of houses – but we’ve got smarter.”
Netting has been put up over the exercise yard to stop drugs being thrown over the walls and grills installed over windows where prisoners previously dropped out fishing-type lines that would then be used to reel drugs in through the bars.
Close links with the police have seen suspicious-looking vehicles stopped and searched on their way to prison.
“We’d never sit here and say there isn’t a problem, but we can now say we are not sitting back and just letting it happen,” Miss Pounder said.
Employing a carrot-and-stick approach to drug use, bosses also devised a Deter and Reward Strategy.
Punishments for those caught using include days in segregation and the loss of televisions or gym time.
Extra gym time, family visits and other rewards act as incentives to stick to the rules.
Miss Pounder said: “You talk to prisoners who were known in the past to be involved in dealing and they will say it’s just too much like hard work and it’s not worth it.”
But the emphasis is not just on temporary rewards and punishments.
Since the coalition government published its Breaking the Cycle strategy – aimed at cutting reoffending – at the end of 2010, there has been a shift in approach from merely trying to keep drug-using offenders out of trouble to helping them recover.
In the past many prisoners had simply been maintained on their prescriptions for opiate substitutes like methadone or Subutex while inside, because it was seen as the best way of keeping them and their fellow inmates safe. Now the emphasis is on weaning them off their dependency.
In a government-funded pilot, recovery wings were opened at five prisons.
Leeds was not one of them, but bosses felt it was so important they opened one anyway.
All prisoners are asked about their drug use and urine tested on their first night in the prison.
Those who have a problem are told of their options and put on the recovery wing, where they can be closely monitored.
At the end of the first week they are given the option of going on the six-week recovery course, which teaches them about the reasons behind their drug use and helps them reduce their methadone intake.
Those who finish the course then go on to a post-recovery wing which involves group counselling.
The prison has appointed five prisoners who have been through the process as ‘recovery champions’ to encourage their peers to get clean.
Miss Pounder said: “There’s no better person than someone who can stand up and say, ‘I have been there and done it.’”
Since the recovery wing opened, more than 100 have finished the recovery course. Two thirds are on reduced methadone or Subutex as a result, with the rest having been kept on their initial doses for medical reasons.
Those that finish the courses get certificates.
“That might seem silly to us, but can be a massive thing for them,” Ms Pounder said. There are plans to hold graduation-style ceremonies in prison to congratulate those who complete the course.
While she admits there is much to be done, Miss Pounder says significant strides have been made.
“I wouldn’t say they are leaving us as fresh as a daisy, but they have the tools in their toolbox to help them continue with their journey.
“I genuinely think what we’re doing is making the world a safer place.”