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Which prisoners get involved in the illicit economy in prisons?

Prisoners who are susceptible to the influence of others and who have low levels of assertiveness and willpower are most likely to get involved in the pervasive illicit economy in prisons.

That is the finding of research to be presented by Alan Hammill from the University of Surrey to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology in Brighton, on Tuesday 14 June 2016.

His research was conducted in collaboration with Professor Jane Ogden from the University of Surrey and Dr Emily Glorney from Royal Holloway, University of London.

The illicit economy in prisons involves trading of banned goods, including new psychoactive substances. These sell for several times the street value and buyers have strict time-limits within which to re-pay any debt or the amount owed soars way beyond the means of most prisoners.

The researchers surveyed 71 male prisoners across four prisons and found that engaging in the illicit economy had a detrimental impact on mental and physical health. Prisoners who engaged with the illicit economy tended to find it difficult to resist influence to join in and, subsequently, found it hard to leave. Getting into debt was problematic and could lead to violence between prisoners as a way of resolving conflict or as a means for the debtor to be moved to a different wing or a different prison.

Alan Hammill says: “prisoners trade, particularly in new psychoactive substances, because it’s lucrative for sellers and kills time for buyers who are bored and crave a high; the trade has until recently been perceived as low risk because new psychoactive substances were not illegal and could not be detected through drug screening”.

The researchers developed a new assessment to try to identify prisoners vulnerable to joining the illicit economy and using new psychoactive substances (such as ‘spice’) and, thereby, to reduce the increasing problems of debt, violence and isolation.

Alan Hammill says: “BIDSCALE is a quick and easily administered questionnaire which could be used to help identify and support those prisoners most at risk from the illicit economy and most likely to suffer its consequences.”

He added “in the short term, this could help with managing the problem of the illicit economy in prisons which, in the longer term, calls for changes to policy and practice as well as for prisoners to change their behaviour.”