Drug related deaths in prisons in England and Wales, 2015-2020

June 2021-ongoing, funded by Middlesex University

Aim:  This study aims to examine the factors contributing to drug-related deaths in English and Welsh prisons between 2015-2020.

Methods:  In this study, we analysed 129 fatal incident investigations conducted by the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) in the ‘other non-natural category’ which offers a useful proxy measure for drug-related deaths.  Basic descriptive statistics were generated and qualitative analysis explored the circumstances surrounding the deaths and the key risk factors.  We examined how each drug-related death in prison emerges as an event in a context of interwoven forces coming together in a unique combination.

Key findings: 

  • There is a paucity of research analysing drug-related deaths in prison settings. This has been a neglected feature in both policy debate and in research.
  • The cause of death recorded was related to substance use in 80% of cases. Substance use was implicated or suspected by the PPO initially in all cases, even though in 15% it could not be proven at the time.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids played a rising and extensive contribution in the deaths analysed during this period.
  • The individuals who died had complex physical health (26%) and mental health needs (57%)
  • A variety of factors in the immediate context and overall environment of the prison setting increased the risk of death.
  • During this period, the prison was under considerable stress creating dangerous environments for drug-related harm.
  • The study highlights the process of complex interaction between substances used, individual characteristics, situational features and the wider environment in explaining drug-related deaths in prison.

Research Team: Karen Duke (Middlesex University), Susanne MacGregor (Middlesex University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Helen Gleeson (Middlesex University), Betsy Thom (Middlesex University)

Contact:  Karen Duke, k.duke@mdx.ac.uk