Inside Scotland's biggest jail: 'About 90% of the guys in my halls are on drugs'

Inside Barlinnie: ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith goes inside Scotland's biggest prison and given exclusive access to how it's tackling the problem of inmates struggling with addiction

Barlinnie is Scotland’s biggest, oldest, and toughest prison.

Going inside those foreboding Victorian brick walls in the north of Glasgow is a daunting prospect for anyone convicted, but ITV News gained exclusive access as part of our ongoing investigation into Scotland’s drug death crisis.

Scotland has the worst drug death record in Europe, and one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe. The two are inextricably related.

Peter Smith asks First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about ITV's discoveries

We have learned the majority of inmates in Barlinnie are in a revolving door of addiction, crime and incarceration, that too often takes them one of only two ways: in and out of prison, or to an early grave.

Barlinnie's governor, Michael Stoney, is constantly battling overcrowding, and we wanted to know how many are inside because of, or relating to, their addiction problems.

“About 80%,” he told me. “It’s important for people to understand that Scotland has a particular problem.”

Scotland has the worst drug death record in Europe, and one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe. Credit: ITV News

Right away the atmosphere in the cell halls hits you: eerily calm, yet constantly tense. A pressure cooker that feels like it’s simmering and could boil over if something, somewhere goes wrong.

“About 90% of the guys in my halls are on drugs,” one prisoner, Steven Telford, tells me. 

He previously served a sentence for murder, and tells us is now back behind bars for assault and refusing a breath test while he was under the influence. 

“People go around punching people randomly. It can be a scary place.”

Peter Smith attending a Recovery Cafe session with the inmates. Credit: ITV News

That’s what the governor and his prison staff are up against - trying to keep a lid on that pressure cooker, and trying to keep out the drugs that set people off.

“We try,” says one prison officer who wants to remain anonymous. 

He shows me various ways they have succeeded in intercepting drugs being smuggled in: hidden in the soles of trainers; hidden in letters soaked in drugs then posted to the inmates, disguised as legal letters so they cannot be opened. 

“Every time we detect something and stop it, there’s another system in play.”

We learn that prisoners have now been handed a new way of getting drugs in. 

During the pandemic, about 7,600 inmates in Scotland were issued with their very own mobile phone. 

Prisoner Steve Telford is in for assault while under the influence. Credit: ITV News

Previously mobiles were strictly defined as contraband, but the Scottish Government, along with the Scottish Prison Service, spent around £2.7m on the handsets and setting up networks to compensate for prisoners having reduced contact with family through lockdown.

They were supposed to be tamper-proof, but we learned some of the phones were hacked “within minutes” and many now operate with illegal SIM cards, allowing some inmates to make illicit calls to run drug deals or smuggling operations from inside their cell.

The scale of this is not known exactly but one prison officer, John McTavish, gives us an idea.

“I did a check of the phones in one of the phones around March time,” he says. “Of the 300 prisoners that were there, probably around 100 phones were tampered with altogether.”

Mobile phones, issued by the Scottish government, are now being used to buy drugs. Credit: ITV News

The truth is, all prisons are constantly struggling to tackle the supply of drugs, and that cat-and-mouse game of keeping up with the organised crime gangs takes up a lot of resources. 

That’s why Barlinnie prison officers are now focusing more energy than ever before on reducing the demand - treating the addiction while they have a captive audience in here.

If they can get prisoners off drugs then they believe there will be fewer problems with the supply, and it puts prisoners in a better place before being released.

A Recovery Cafe has been invited in to be delivered by an outside charity called Sisco. It is run by Natalie Logan, a volunteer, and operates with one condition: no prison officers are allowed in the room.

That’s potentially high-risk, and when the door closes and the last warden leaves the room, I found out from Natalie why this is so important.

“If they openly discuss using drugs or having violent thoughts that can go against them,” she told me. “They might not get parole or they might get in trouble. So it’s so important they feel this is a safe space.”

In the group, inmates talk each other through recovery and prison life. 

Left alone with the inmates, we hear the majority have a familiar path - childhood in care or surrounded by violence and addiction - an adult life in and out of prison.

Prisoner Derek Hobbs says the Recovery Cafe has hugely helped him through sobriety. Credit: ITV News

“There’s been times when I’ve hated myself,” inmate Steven Telford tells us. “I’ve beat myself up but now I’m in a place, probably through this Recovery Cafe and sharing my experiences, where I’m starting to enjoy my own company.

“I’m proud that I can say no to drugs.”

This recovery work in Barlinnie is getting inmates to a better place - drug free, looking for a life away from crime.

The benefits of offering this can also be measured in brass tacks given imprisonment costs the public on average £35,000 per inmate per year.

But there is one problem we keep hearing again and again - they can leave prison drug free, only to be housed into hostels surrounded by drugs.

 “If I left prison to my own temporary furnished flat instead of a hostel, I would flourish and I would not come back to prison,” prisoner Derek Hobbs tells us.

He is inside for a Covid assault on a police officer, sentenced to 27 months. It is a crime he says he would not have committed if he weren’t under the influence. 

He has been in prison “14 or 15 times” from the age of 16.

“It’s the fact that every time I get let out, I am either homeless on the streets or in a hostel. When you’re in they environments you’re surrounded by drink and drugs.

“That’s where I have relapsed every singe time.”

Ultimately this recovery programme inside Barlinnie can’t force prisoners to make the right decisions but the mission is giving people ways to cope with what awaits them on the outside.