A CHRONIC shortage of scanners in prisons has left staff overrun by zombie drugs which are being sent to inmates in the post.

New psychoactive substances (NPS), such as Spice, are wreaking havoc behind bars as the substances, which are soaked into the paper of letters and then posted to prisoners, are practically undetectable by traditional screening methods.

The trade union representing prison officers says there are just three scanners, of the type found to be successful in detecting the drugs, for all 15 prisons in Scotland.

Now Prison Officers Association (POA) bosses are calling for capital investment from the government to fund more equipment for all prisons, which they say would have a huge impact in reducing the amount of NPS – formerly known as legal highs – getting into jails.

Currently one of the most common ways of getting them into prisons is by using the soaked letters, which are then cut up and either smoked or boiled in water and drunk.

Phil Fairlie, the chairman of POA Scotland, said: "One page of one letter could keep a whole gallery [of prisoners] going for a week. It is as significant as that.

"You only need a tiny amount of this for it to have a significant effect on someone."

According to figures published this week, NPS have been found on Scottish prisoners more than 520 times in the past nine months – triple the number seized three years ago.

However, prison officers say they are having to handle inmates who are completely out of control due to the substances every single day, suggesting the number of drug recoveries fall far below the amount actually circulating behind bars.

Fairlie said: "The chemical makeup of it changes so much now too, so it is really very difficult to track and identify it coming in to prisons.

"Dogs aren't able to identify it, the way we can with cocaine or cannabis. The amount you need is so small, it is very simple and easy to get an insignificant amount in, which can then have a huge impact on the inside when it gets through the door."

The drugs are described as "zombie drugs" due to the effect they often have on people. Users will often be seen wandering around, lying on the floor, or standing in uncomfortable positions for minutes, or hours, on end, while they are high.

They seem unable to react or respond to outside influences, and do not appear to be able to detect danger or pain.

In other cases, however, users will react erratically or violently, and can lash out unpredictably while on the drugs.

This behaviour, and the inability to know how to treat prisoners who are under the influence, is causing huge problems behind bars and is a danger for both prisoners and staff.

One prison officer said the drugs are forcing him and many colleagues to consider leaving the profession as having to handle prisoners who have taken the substances every day is proving too much to cope with.

Fairlie said: "It can be really quite troublesome for everyone involved, including the staff. We are the ones who are expected to take control of the situation and make it better for everyone else, but sometimes it's not possible.

"It puts a lot of pressure on staff, and there is no question they are feeling it. We have more staff than ever going off with stress and sickness absence. We have people leaving in bigger numbers than we are used to, through capability or retirement, because the prison environment has changed significantly and some are finding it a real struggle."

One of the major problems for prison officers is the fact that methods of restraint and controlling prisoners who may be behaving erratically while on drugs do not work for those who have taken NPS.

READ MORE: Call to overhaul "broken" open prison system

While someone who has taken heroin or cocaine is still able to feel pain, detect if they are being restrained or are having trouble breathing, those who have taken Spice, for example, cannot.

"The control and restraint methods we use are designed to take control of certain limbs, to stop prisoners struggling," Fairlie said.

"If they do struggle the methods inflict pain on them, which brings a barrier to control the behaviour.

"Someone on psychoactive substances doesn't feel that pain. They are so disassociated from that pain, they don't know what's going on around them, they are not with you in the room.

"Trying to control them for any extended period of time, because they are not with it, is dangerous to the prisoner's health. They are not aware that it is impacting on their breathing, it could be compressing their airways but they are not even aware. It's just dangerous.

"Staff, they know it's dangerous but there is not a viable alternative. The environment for staff is a much more difficult, confused one than it has ever been before."

To address the problems, Fairlie said more funding is needed to provide technology which has so far proven successful in combating the influx of NPS.

Three Rapiscan scanners are being used across the prison estate to detect the drugs, but this is not enough to stop them coming in completely. Other suggestions include photocopying all mail, and handing prisoners the copies instead of the originals.

READ MORE: Revealed: Scottish Prison Service 'ignoring' law to tackle reoffending

Fairlie explained: "We have to be spending more on the technology that stops it coming in in the first place. Prisoners are entitled to have mail sent to them, and we wouldn't want to stop contact between prisoners and people on the outside, but we need to look at rules and what ability we have to stop the mail items coming in that are soaked in the contraband and find a way of stopping it getting in to the population.

"That means mail being photocopied, and prisoners getting photocopies, or if we have technology that allows us to stop it at source.

"Currently we have three scanners in the estate and we have been piloting them, and they've been really quite successful in identifying this stuff in a way that we have not been able to up to now.

"Three for the whole estate is not enough, we need a capital investment from government to provide that kind of infrastructure to stop it at source in every prison.That is the best solution, to stop it entering in the first place, but it requires money to be spent."

Fairlie was backed by the LibDems' justice spokesman, Liam McArthur, who said that the number of scanners was "not sufficient".

He said: "Scotland has 15 prisons but only three scanners. It’s quite clear that is not sufficient.

“Prison staff are already under immense pressure dealing with over-packed prisons. We have one of the highest prison populations in Europe and we know that self-harm and assaults in prison are on the rise. Having more dangerous drugs in there too makes for an even more toxic mix.

READ MORE: Barlinnie faces 'shocking' overcrowding, prison bosses warn MSPs

“This is an incredibly difficult working environment and we can’t expect staff to take on more without the resources and back-up they need. The Justice Secretary must make immediate moves properly resource the service.”

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) said: "We recognise the importance of providing a safe and secure environment for our staff and those in our care.

"SPS deploys a variety of strategic, tactical and technological responses to reduce drug use in Scotland’s prisons and has invested in the development of new technology to detect, deter and reduce the availability and supply of illegal substances.

"Such security measures include a range of tactical options supported by X-ray machines and body scanners, as well as trained drug detection dogs to identify the most current and common components of psychoactive substances.

"Anyone found in possession of contraband or attempting to smuggle such items into our prisons will reported to the appropriate authorities."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While this is an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service, we are absolutely clear the use of drugs in our prisons cannot be tolerated.

“The SPS carries out regular searches of the people in its care, staff, visitors and items posted.

"The SPS is also exploring a range of actions to better detect and stop drugs, including so-called legal highs, coming into prison. This includes working with the University of Dundee and using scanners and other technology which, of course, must be robustly tested to ensure that they are effective in drug detection.”