How to Smuggle Drugs Into Prison

By Will Godfrey 04/14/11

It's no surprise that prison inmates regularly get high. But just how do they get their hands on the goods? A former worker at a notorious London jail spills the gory secrets.

H.M.P. Pentonville: How the other half live Photo via

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Pentonville’s prisoners routinely obtain all manner of illicit substances, from crack to steroids. Even methadone is sold and traded. Prisoners who are legitimately prescribed the medication sip the concoction in view of a watchful nurse, but don’t swallow it. Instead, they spit it out into a cup when they return to their cells a few minutes later. “Piss tests,” mandatory in all prisons in England and Wales since 1996, are given to randomly selected prisoners throughout the year, as well as to those regarded with particular suspicion. But because cannabis is detectable in the urine for much longer than heroin, for example, some argue that this testing only encourages prisoners to use harder drugs instead.

Unlike other drugs at Pentonville, which are imported from outside, alcohol is usually manufactured on site. Prisoners often make bootleg liquor by mixing fruit juice, water, bread, and sugar in a plastic bottle, which they leave to brew on one of the warm pipes that heat their cells during the colder months. Consequently, inmates grumble about liquor shortages during the spring and summer, but an air of anticipation is discernable every autumn, when the heat pipes are turned on, and prisoners start brewing their homemade hooch in time for Christmas.

Over the years, the prison's administrators have embarked on a series of strict initiatives to eradicate the problem. Sympathetic and dedicated staff members have also started in-house treatment programs and a refurbished detox wing was opened to house inmates trying to kick their habits. Despite these efforts, however, nothing yet seems to have worked. Drugs enter Pentonville and most other prisons as fast as ever. Wider society may be engaged in an often-questioned and never-ending “war on drugs,” but behind prison walls, the battle rages with an entirely different level of intensity. And in jail, like in the outside world, the drug dealers often have the upper hand.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. He is a Brooklyn-based writer and recent arrival from London, where he co-founded award-winning prisoners' publication Voice of the Ville. He has also interviewed TV chef Andrew Zimmern and written about some religious reprobates for The Fix.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.