Drug-related incidents in prison have “significantly decreased” after a new policy to photocopy letters sent to inmates was introduced, MSPs have been told.
The measure was introduced last month in a bid to stop drug-soaked letters reaching prisoners, instead giving them copies of the original document.
On Wednesday, the justice secretary told the Scottish Parliament’s criminal Justice Committee that there had been five deaths linked to the drug etizolom among prisoners last year.
MSPs were told that between August 2020 and July 2021, there were 8869 mail items received in prisons which tested positive for an illicit substance.
Keith Brown told the committee: “During 2021, there have been five confirmed deaths in SPS custody linked to suspected drug overdoses involving the psychoactive substance etizolam.
“This is an illicit class-C drug, and this drug can be infused into papers, cards and clothing.”
He said there had also been concerns about the numbers of prisoners being taken to hospital for drug-related issues.
Following the introduction of the new photocopying policy in December, Brown said “early indications” showed a significant decrease in recorded drug-taking incidents and drug-related emergency escorts.
There were 248 drug-taking incidents in October, 305 in November and 131 in December, he said.
Brown added that although prisoners were initially hostile towards the new rules, they have now become more supportive of the policy.
Scottish Conservative MSP Russell Findlay said etizolam had been “rife” in prisons for some time, saying the drop in drug incidents was “fascinating”.
Fiona Cruickshanks, head of operations and public protection at SPS, said the volume of mail in some establishments had reduced in the early weeks of January.
MSPs were told that prison officers would not open legally privileged mail such as letters from lawyers.
A group of criminal justice researchers have also written to MSPs objecting to the new powers for prison officers.
The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research said the rules were disproportionate and created the risk of abuses of power.
A letter on behalf of the researchers said: “Seeking to prevent the tragedy of drug overdoses in prison should not come at the cost of granting carte blanche to penal authorities.
“This is a rule that has as much chance of worsening the current situation in prisons as ameliorating it, establishing a permanent power to interfere with correspondence and relationships of imprisoned people and their loved ones.”