Home > Prison rules provide for mandatory drug testing.

Connolly, Johnny (2005) Prison rules provide for mandatory drug testing. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 15, Autumn 2005, p. 15.

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  The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr Michael McDowell TD, announced the publication of new draft prison rules in June. The rules deal with all aspects of prison life, including accommodation, visiting rights, discipline, health and education. The existing prison rules date back to 1947.

 The new rules make provision for the introduction of compulsory or mandatory drug testing (MDT) of prisoners, a commitment in the Agreed Programme for Government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

 Section 28 (5) (a) provides: ‘In the interest of good order, safety, health and security and in accordance with directions set down by the minister, a prisoner … shall, for the purpose of detecting the presence or use of an intoxicating liquor or any controlled drug … provide all or any of the following samples, namely – urine, saliva, oral buccal transudate, hair.’ The announcement comes at a time of increased debate as to the merits of MDT. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has consistently opposed the introduction of MDT. Speaking to Drugnet Ireland, Rick Lines, executive director of the IPRT, said: ‘such testing increases heroin use among prisoners, increases injecting and the risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission through shared syringes, reduces the uptake of voluntary drug treatment by prisoners, and wastes money that could be better spent on more effective drug programmes’.

 In Scotland, recent media speculation suggests that Scottish prison chiefs are to scrap compulsory drug testing due to concerns that it may be encouraging increased heroin use.1 Fears have arisen that, as heroin stays in the urine for only three days – a shorter time period than for drugs such as cannabis, which may be detected for ten days or more – inmates are increasingly using heroin to avoid detection. Under current rules in Scotland, at least 10 per cent of prisoners are tested every month.

 A programme of MDT based on urine analysis was implemented in all prisons in England and Wales in March 1996. The aims of the programme are to monitor drug taking in custody, to deter prisoners from misusing drugs and to identify individuals in need of treatment. Tests undertaken include the random testing of a proportion of prisoners in each prison each month. A recent Home Office study considered the impact and effectiveness of the programme.2 The Prison Service commissioned the research to determine how effectively the programme was achieving its aims and specifically to determine whether MDT was encouraging prisoners to use more harmful drugs such as heroin to avoid detection.

 Over 2,000 prisoners were interviewed for the Home Office study between 2001 and 2002. Prison staff were also asked their views about the programme and MDT data were analysed. Findings were compared with an earlier prison survey. Among the main findings were:

  •  Drug use as measured by monthly random tests in prisons was found to correlate with prisoners’ self-reported drug use.
  • ·Since mandatory drug testing was introduced, the use of cannabis in prison had declined while heroin use had remained fairly stable.
  •  One per cent of prisoners surveyed had stopped using cannabis and started using heroin since beginning their sentence, but fear of detection by random testing was only one factor affecting this behaviour.
  • ·Procedures for referrals to treatment following a positive random test were under-utilised.

 The overall conclusion reached by the study is that MDT, along with other strategies, has substantially reduced cannabis use within prisons but has had little effect on the use of heroin. The study suggests that prisoners know that heroin is less easily detected than cannabis. If the objective of MDT is to reduce heroin use in prison, this study suggests that its impact will be minimal. A possible reason for this, as the study concludes, is that ‘current use of heroin is more clearly influenced by previous and persistent use … [and that] some prisoners with a high level of dependence before coming to prison are likely to be impervious to any kind of sanction’.3  

1. Prison drug tests ‘failing to have impact’. The Scotsman, 22 April 2005.
2. Singleton N et al. (2005) The impact of mandatory drug testing in prisons. Home Office Online Report 03/05. Accessed on 24.8.05 at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/rdsolr0305.pdf   For a summary of the findings see Home Office Research Development and Statistics Directorate (2005) Findings 223. Accessed on 24.8.05 at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/r223.pdf
3. Findings 223, p4.

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