Home > Responding to 'wicked problems': policy and governance on drug-related deaths in English and Welsh prisons, 2015-2021.

Duke, Karen and MacGregor, Susanne (2024) Responding to 'wicked problems': policy and governance on drug-related deaths in English and Welsh prisons, 2015-2021. International Journal of Drug Policy, 126, 104358. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2024.104358.

External website: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/...

BACKGROUND: Prison settings have been neglected in the growing literature on drug-related deaths. This paper explores policy and practice issues regarding the governance of drug-related deaths in prisons in England and Wales from 2015-2021.

METHODS: Thematic documentary analysis was conducted on national level policy documents published between 2015-2021 (e.g. drug strategies, prison policy documents, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons and Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) annual reports and guidance for staff). At the local (prison) level, all of the PPO fatal investigation reports and their associated action plans relating to 171 drug-related deaths from 2015-2021 were analysed thematically. Various modes of governance were identified using Head's 'wicked problems' conceptual framework including avoidance and denial, coercive controls, compartmentalised micro-management, incremental and pragmatic adjustment and technocratic problem-solving.

RESULTS: There was strong evidence of the dominance of denial of the problem of drug-related deaths, coercive controls, micro-management and reliance on technological solutions in the early years (2015-2018). In some prisons, there developed a move towards the adoption of more pragmatic and incremental policies and push towards comprehensive policies over time. In others, remnants of denial and coercion remained. In our analysis, the focus on new psychoactive substances came to dominate attention, to the relative neglect of other substances and of the contribution of mental and physical illness to these deaths. Staff are not equipped, supported or resourced adequately to deal with the two 'wicked problems' of increasing rates of drug use and mental illness which collide in the prison setting.

CONCLUSION: The PPO investigations repeatedly recommend reducing supply and improving monitoring and surveillance and the emergency response. There is less focus on prevention and reducing demand or improving the wider environmental context and culture in which the deaths occur. Policy needs to pay more attention to the fundamental issues driving the current deterioration in conditions in prisons.

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