Skip to main content

Physical defences aren’t enough: Why work and education are the keys to tackling the demand for drugs inside

Deputy director at G4S-managed HM Prison Altcourse, Lyndon Noonan, talks about the prison's approach to tackling drugs
HMP Altcourse

Whenever people talk about prisons, they inevitably end up talking about drugs. Some are baffled that drugs can still make it behind the seemingly impermeable walls. 

In my experience, local prisons in built up areas like HMP Altcourse, become a target for criminals from the casual drug dealer to the serious organised criminal gangs which have complex networks across the UK. 

Tackling this problem is naturally far from straight-forward. Physical defences are clearly visible to anyone visiting Altcourse, in addition to heavy penalties for anyone caught using or supplying drugs and yet it still continues. Due to the restricted supply and risks taken by dealers, the price which can be commanded on the inside outstrips the street value, sometimes 10:1. Where there is money to be made, criminals will continue to establish new ways of smuggling contraband into prisons.

Some might seek to place blame at the foot of our staff, but in my experience staff corruption is extremely rare. Our team works incredibly hard in often difficult circumstances. I do encourage new officers to talk to Security, their line managers or me if they feel they are being pressured by prisoners to smuggle contraband into the establishment. If we know there is a problem, we can help. Whether that be with additional training or support from the rest of the team, we want to help. 

At Altcourse we have been trying another approach, in addition to physical defences we work with the men in our care to provide a supportive environment to help prisoners abstain from using drugs either as a coping mechanism or as a source of entertainment. 

We do this through three distinct streams; rehabilitation, education and purposeful work. 


At Altcourse we have been trying another approach, in addition to physical defences we work with the men in our care to provide a supportive environment to help prisoners abstain from using drugs either as a coping mechanism or as a source of entertainment. 

Lyndon Noonan, Deputy director at HM Prison Altcourse 


Prisoners can arrive at Altcourse with drug problems, either from abusing substances in the community or previous habits which had continued at other prisons. They arrive into the prison and are assessed by our integrated substance misuse team who assess their mental health, current medications, the extent of their substance misuse and identify any additional support they may need. Many prisoners are keen to rid themselves of addiction to drugs such as psychoactive substances (PS), which are not only dangerous, but also have unpredictable and sometimes lethal, side effects.
HMP Altcourse has dedicated detoxification and abstinence unit staffed by a dedicated team that offer clinical and psychosocial interventions supported by peer supporters who have been through the process themselves thus providing  a valuable insight into the benefits of remaining drug free. 

One of the benefits of having dedicated units ensures there is a culture of mutual support that is essential when prisoners are going through this sometimes painful process, we have seen a much better success rate with this model and the team is able to identify more quickly when a prisoner is struggling. 


Educating prisoners on the dangers of drugs has helped to decrease the demand, particularly for psychoactive substances. We’ve invited people with experience of PS use to speak to our prisoners and describe the devastating consequences. One prisoner spoke to a group of men about the time a fellow prisoner took ‘Spice’ and lost all ability to speak or move. This was followed by a heart attack which left the prisoner hospitalised for several weeks. The prisoners vowed to not touch the stuff again. 

2017 was the year we really saw the results of peer mentoring. In their recent inspection report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons said that workshops facilitated by peer mentors were “energetic” and “a very positive initiative” and we’ve seen the number of self-harm incidents reduce from 1,311 in 2016 to 849 in 2017. 

But, education isn’t limited to the perils of PS. 

Education at Altcourse also means giving prisoners the opportunity to develop their skills. For some this might be as basic as numeracy and literacy, with other prisoners completing degrees with the Open University. 

Since August 2016, we have seen over a thousand prisoners complete basic level qualifications in skills like construction, transport maintenance and painting and 157 have completed over seven different courses, equivalent to A levels in terms of difficulty. 

Purposeful work

The strongest defence against drugs at Altcourse, apart from the physical security such as the vertical netting around the perimeter, is undoubtedly providing meaningful and purposeful work opportunities to the men in our care. 

For work to have meaning it must be transferrable to the outside world. In my experience the best way to get prisoners to work is to ensure it is going to provide them with job opportunities on release, allowing them to earn money and rebuild their futures. You’ve got to give people hope that change can happen – that they won’t go back to the same cycle of events that brought them to Altcourse in the first place.

We consult with the local communities on a regular basis, to see what skills are required in the community and make every attempt to provide work and training to meet those needs. 

In May 2017, we saw there was a need in the community for welders. We partnered with a social enterprise company – Recycling Lives – that refabricates discarded skips. They are particularly focused on training and employing former offenders, providing some training but in addition will also provide them with accommodation. 

The Welding Academy at Altcourse is now highly sought after as a work placement, with a waiting list of men keen to start the course. We are pleased to have secured employment for a number of men on release from Altcourse within the industries they have trained in. 

The majority of men at Altcourse work a 40 hour week in order to prepare them for life on release. This instils an ethos of improvement and a drive towards change. 


Investing in technology has undoubtedly helped in the battle against drugs. A trial of a full body scanner which can detect non-metal objects, and which may not be detected as part of a normal search, has been underway for the past couple of months at the prison. The aim is to not only prevent more contraband coming into the prison but also, in a more subtle endeavour, to let prisoners on short sentences who are targeted by serious criminal gangs into being drug mules, know that we have methods that will intercept these packages. 

But while there is money to be made, as a team responsible for up to 1,184 men, we would be foolish to assume that an extra detection method, or new fences could prevent the supply of drugs from coming through the gates.

What we have seen is through our commitment to providing opportunities along with clear communications on the dangers, drug use at Altcourse has decreased and with that, the decline of violence and self-harm have followed

We must not be complacent, but for now, we are making progress. 

You can hear more about the work at Altcourse on the BBC Radio 4 programme, File on 4: Prison, drugs and debts - who's paying the price? This is available for those in the UK to listen to via BBC iPlayer.