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HMP Swaleside Prison on Isle of Sheppey is getting to grips with drugs problem

By Alan Smith

HMP Swaleside is getting to grips with the problem of drugs in the prison, a coronor was told.

Patricia Harding was conducting an inquest into the death of a prisoner Derrick Johnston, 43, who died in his cell in the jail at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey on August 12 last year, after taking Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid.

Miss Harding asked barrister Matthew Flinn, who was representing Her Majesty's Prison Service at the inquest what steps had been taken to stop a similar tragedy occurring again.

Swaleside Prison in Brabazon Road, Eastchurch: two men were caught throwing drugs over the fence
Swaleside Prison in Brabazon Road, Eastchurch: two men were caught throwing drugs over the fence

Mr Flinn said that the prison now held monthly drug strategy meetings of all senior staff to ensure the fight against drugs remained at the forefront of everyone's attention.

Specific measures had included the arrest and conviction of a man flying drugs into the prison using a drone. Two other men and their driver, caught throwing drugs over the prison fence, had been arrested and were awaiting trial.

Enhanced CCTV surveillance of prison visits had resulted in 24 arrests for the attempted smuggling of drugs since January alone and eight prisoners within the jail who were known to be involved with the running of a drugs network had been moved out to other establishments.

A new high-tech scanner had been purchased that enabled officers to search prisoners' mail for drugs, and would even pick-up whether a letter page had been impregnated with banned substances.

The wing had been locked down for the night when Mr Johnston died
The wing had been locked down for the night when Mr Johnston died

The prison was also in the process of introducing individual medical hatches on each prison wing, for prisoners to collect their prescribed medications. This helped to limit the opportunity for prisoners to trade in legal drugs.

The prison had appointed two full-time officers to carry out both regular and random drug testing of the inmates and all drug-testing targets were now being met.

The prison had also re-introduced visits by Cocaine Anonymous, Alcohol Anonymous and other bodies to help prisoners face up to their addictions.

Finally, officers had become aware that some prisoners were cutting their drugs with a cleaning chemical available on the wings. The most commonly used cleaner was now no longer being used in the prison and other cleaning agents were now issued only in small quantities sufficient for the prisoners to do the task in hand, rather than their being given a whole bottle.

Mr Flinn said: "The nature and scale of the challenge (of drugs in prison) is still very significant, but there has been been sure and steady progress.

"Officers are now only aware of a couple of uses (of synthetic cannabinoid) a week."

The prison houses 1,112 prisoners.

A cell at HMP Swaleside similar to that occupied by Derrick Johnston
A cell at HMP Swaleside similar to that occupied by Derrick Johnston

Mr Flinn said he believed that synthetic cannabinoids was also becoming less popular as potential users became aware of the high risk of fatality, such as happened to Mr Johnston.

The coroner Miss Harding agreed. She said: "Judging by the number of deaths that come before us as a result of the use of these substances, not just from Swaleside but from the wider prison population, it does appear that their use is on the decline."

The inquest heard that Mr Johnston had been found slumped in his single-occupancy cell on C-Wing during a roll-call after evening lock-down. Despite prolonged efforts first by prison staff and then by ambulance crews, he couldn't be revived and was declared dead at the scene.

A post mortem revealed he had breathed in his stomach contents - vomiting is a common symptom of Spice use. A vape pen, adapted for drug use, was found in his cell, and traces of synthetic cannabinoid metabolite were found in his blood.

A jury returned a verdict of misadventure.

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