Ambulance calls to prison overdoses triple in five years

The number of ambulance calls to drug overdoses or poisonings at prisons in Scotland has almost tripled in five years.

The Scottish Prison Service said the issue is largely down to new substances being smuggled into prisons through mail, as letters are soaked and then dried out.

The problem is increasing, a spokesperson said, and “extremely dangerous”.

Between 62 and 89 calls were made in 2020-2021, up from 24 to 33 calls in 2016/17.

HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, where 13 calls were made in 2020-2021.

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The figures were released by the Scottish Ambulance Service in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Scottish Conservatives.

Exact figures are not known due to the approximation of data in order to protect individuals’ identities.

In the last year HMP Barlinnie was the prison most affected, with 13 calls made.

There were 12 calls to HMP Glenochil, and eight to Low Moss.

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A spokesperson for the SPS said the decision to call an ambulance is made by medical professionals.

The prison service has seen an increase in overdoses of new drugs smuggled in by mail, they said.

“We do have to face the challenge of new psychoactive substances,” they said.

"It has been an increasing problem in the last few years, brought about by people taking substances where they're not even sure what they’re taking.”

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This problem has been happening in the community, and elsewhere in the UK and the world, they said.

“Some people are saturating paper with these substances in a liquid form, that are then later used. It's extremely dangerous. We have a number of people who have succumbed, and we believe that has been the cause of it.”

The Scottish Conservatives said the figures should be a “wake-up call” for the government.

Scottish Conservative Shadow Community Safety Minister Russell Findlay said he had spoken with prison officers who were at “breaking point”.

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“These figures should be a wake-up call for the SNP justice secretary, health secretary and drugs minister,” he said.

"Our ambulance service cannot cope with calls increasing at this rate.

“SNP Ministers have repeatedly ignored my calls to tackle the main source of prison drug smuggling - which is substances being soaked into items of mail.

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“They could stop this immediately but instead come up with a vague commitment to look into it.

“That is a dereliction of duty and puts prison staff and ambulance crews under increased pressure. It also reduces the chances of prisoners to get clean and rehabilitate.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the distribution of only photocopies of mail arriving to prisons is being explored, including considering the legal implications.

They added: “The use of illegal drugs in prisons cannot be tolerated and the prison service have a range of robust security measures in place to prevent the introduction of contraband entering our prisons.

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“Rapiscan machines, which detect substances that may have been concealed in items of mail and personal property, are used in every prison in Scotland and contingency plans are also in place should any machine break.

“SPS continue to seek innovative technological solutions in order to detect, deter and reduce the availability of contraband entering our prisons to ensure the safety of staff and those within its care.”

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