PRISON mail being photocopied has led to a significant decline in drug-related incidents involving inmates, an SNP minister has confirmed.

The measure was introduced in December to stop drug-soaked letters reaching prisoners after thousands of incidents, with inmates now given copies of the original documents.

Justice Secretary Keith Brown told Holyrood’s Criminal Justice Committee there had been five deaths linked to the drug etizolam among prisoners last year, before the new policy was in place.

MSPs were told that between August 2020 and July 2021, there were 8,869 mail items received in prisons which tested positive for an illicit substance.

Mr Brown said: “During 2021, there have been five confirmed deaths in SPS custody linked to suspected drug overdoses involving the psychoactive substance etizolam.

“This is an illicit class-C drug, and this drug can be infused into papers, cards and clothing.”

He said there had also been concerns about the numbers of prisoners being taken to hospital for drug-related issues.

Mr Brown said: “Early indications are that there have been a significant decrease in recorded drug-taking incidents and drug-related emergency escorts for the month of December, compared with the previous two months.”

There were 248 drug-taking incidents in October, 305 in November and 131 in December, he said.

Prisoners were initially hostile towards the new rules before becoming more supportive, he said.

Scottish Conservative MSP Russell Findlay said etizolam had been “rife” in prisons for some time, saying the drop in drug incidents was “fascinating”.

Fiona Cruickshanks, head of operations and public protection at the Scottish Prison Service, said the volume of mail in some establishments had reduced in the early weeks of January.

MSPs were told that prison officers would not open legally privileged mail such as letters from lawyers.

A group of criminal justice researchers have also written to MSPs objecting to the new powers for prison officers.

The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research said the rules were disproportionate and created the risk of abuses of power.

A letter on behalf of the researchers said: “Seeking to prevent the tragedy of drug overdoses in prison should not come at the cost of granting carte blanche to penal authorities.

“This is a rule that has as much chance of worsening the current situation in prisons as ameliorating it, establishing a permanent power to interfere with correspondence and relationships of imprisoned people and their loved ones.”