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Prison nurses say epidemic of 'zombie drug' Spice is threatening their health

RCN calls for action to protect prison nurses exposed to psychoactive smoke

The Spice drug epidemic in UK prisons is putting nurses and inmates at serious risk, warned the RCN.


Picture: Neil O’Connor

Nurses and healthcare assistants are often first on the scene when prisoners need emergency care and, under current guidance when there is smoke in a cell, they are expected to enter before it has cleared.

Some RCN members report experiencing the effects of inhaling the synthetic cannabinoid drug hours following exposure, with some unable to drive home after their shifts.

In at least one case, a nurse has been taken to the emergency department after being rendered unconscious by the psychoactive fumes.

Plea to prison service

The RCN has now written to the head of the prison service calling for action to protect nurses and others health staff from the effects of Spice, a so-called zombie drug.

Use of psychoactive substances is widespread in UK prisons, and the situation has become so dangerous that last month Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust withdrew nursing staff from Holme House prison in county Durham due to the risk posed by Spice. The letter was released as this week's RCN congress in Belfast debated prison nursing issues.

A nurse, who spoke to the RCN on condition of anonymity, said: 'Recently we’ve had to give medical care to over 50 people in one week. Walking back after attending to a patient, I’ve suddenly felt dizzy, nauseous – it’s almost like the world has zoomed out.

Fears about driving home from work

'It’s really bizarre. I’ve sat in my car for 50 minutes after work so I could feel confident enough to drive. We’re all worried about driving in case it’s not safe or we get stopped and it shows in our system.

'If this happened in a hospital, there would be uproar and investigation after investigation. I feel like it’s being swept under the carpet. There’s not enough being done.'

In a letter to HM Prisons and Probation Service chief executive officer Michael Spurr, the RCN said the existing guidance 'conflates the chronic and longer-term issues of exposure to second hand tobacco smoke with the serious and acute issue of exposure to psychoactive substances'.

'We shouldn’t expect staff to put their health on the line’

The guidance also suggests there is a duty for nurses and healthcare assistants 'to intervene to protect a prisoner in danger of immediate harm in a cell where smoke or fumes has not yet cleared'.

This runs contrary to Resuscitation Council guidance, which says emergency responders should assess dangerous situations and ensure their own safety before treating casualties.

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: 'Spice poses a serious threat to nurses, healthcare assistants and prison staff, whose safety and long-term health is being put at risk day in, day out.

'As dedicated health professionals, prison nursing staff are expected to offer high-quality care, but they should not be expected to put their own well-being on the line to deliver it. I have heard some truly shocking stories of nursing staff passing out or being unable to drive after exposure to Spice.

'The scale of this problem demands swift action from HM Prison & Probation Service. We would like an urgent review of the guidance that properly reflects the risks posed by this extremely dangerous drug.'

A Prison Service spokesperson said: 'The best way to keep staff and inmates safe is to keep drugs out of our prisons.

'That is why we have trained more than 300 specialist drug dogs, introduced body scanners and intelligence-led searches, and made it a criminal offence to possess psychoactive substances in prison.

'We look forward to discussing these issues with the RCN.'


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