A BANNED “legal high” must be tackled if officers at Erlestoke Prison are to address the prison’s significant problems.

Prison inspectors have said that Spice, a synthetic cannabis substitute, is being sold at around half the price of tobacco at Erlestoke.

The cheap price means that use of the drug – which was banned by the Government in May 2016 – is more widespread at Erlestoke than other similar jails.

Inspectors visited the Category C training prison, which houses many offenders on life sentences, in June and July.

Erlestoke, between Devizes and Westbury, was last visited by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons four years ago.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Much of the violence and bullying… was, in our view, linked to a significant drug problem, and yet the prison lacked an effective drug strategy.”

In their report, published today, inspectors added: “There were frequent medical emergencies, some very serious, resulting from Spice use – partly due to prisoners smoking Spice without diluting it with tobacco, as is common practice elsewhere.”

Prisoners told the inspectors that the availability of drugs and the recent smoking ban contributed to “a widespread sense of hopelessness”.

According to a report by the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB), published in July, tobacco sells for £150 per ounce at Erlestoke. They said that the high price encouraged smuggling and that, in some cases, families of prisoners were being made to pay their relatives’ debts.

Currently, the street value of Spice ranges from £20 to £60, with the drug sold in leaf or liquid spray form. In Swindon, a small vial of the liquid drug can be bought from £20.

The HM Inspectorate report warned that Erlestoke had declined significantly in the last four years. In 2016, prisoners rioted – resulting in 138 inmates being moved elsewhere and a repair bill of over £1million.

HM Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said: “Work to confront and reduce violence was weak and uncoordinated, and staff confidence and competence in ensuring reasonable challenge and supervision needed improvement.”

They told Erlestoke chiefs to address “chaotic” arrangements for new arrivals to the prison, which left fresh inmates without basic items like socks. Almost a quarter of prisoners were locked in their cell during the working day.

However, inspectors said that a new management team at the prison were keen to make improvements.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, said: “As the Chief Inspector points out, there is much positive work being done by staff at Erlestoke.

“The supply and use of illicit psychoactive drugs has undermined safety in the prison. The governor is working with partners including the police and treatment agencies to address this issue as a priority.

“We will use the recommendations in this report to improve performance at Erlestoke over the coming months.”

Andrew Neilson, of campaigns group the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “As a training prison, Erlestoke is supposed to provide purposeful activity, but inspectors found that one in four men was locked in his cell during the working day and many other prisoners had nothing useful to do.

"This is not going to help them to become law-abiding citizens on release.”