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Do Prison Officers Get Drug Tested UK 2023?

With drugs prevalent in the prison environment, a key responsibility for prison officers is to remain free from any substance abuse issues themselves. This article examines if and how staff in UK jails are tested for drug use while on duty in 2023.

Responsibilities of Prison Officers in the UK

Prison officers play a critical role in the safety and security of jails:

  • Enforce rules, maintain order and ensure control of inmates
  • Prevent escape attempts and stop entry of contraband
  • Oversee inmate activities like meals, work duties, education
  • Provide custody and supervision when prisoners are transported
  • Attend to inmate welfare needs and complaints
  • Carry out searches of cells and inmates for prohibited items

Clear headed judgment is vital with such important duties regarding prisoner management.

Drug Abuse Concerns in the Prison Setting

The prevalence of drugs in prisons raises the risk of staff being targeted or tempted:

  • Up to 20% of prisoners develop drug addictions while incarcerated.
  • Illegal drugs like spice are smuggled into jails by various ingenious methods.
  • Inmates may offer cash or drugs to try to compromise or corrupt staff.
  • Staff could potentially misuse prescription medications stolen from prison medical supplies.
  • The stress of the job combined with exposure to drugs could lead to abuse issues.
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These factors make drug testing a priority for prison staff.

Current UK Policy on Drug Testing Officers

Formal policies are in place mandating drug screening for all UK prison staff:

  • Random drug testing of officers was introduced in 1996.
  • Since 1999, all newly hired prison staff must pass a drug test before employment.
  • Serving officers face random mandatory drug tests at any time during employment.
  • Around 5% of officers are randomly selected each year for testing.
  • Testing can also be required if drug abuse is reasonably suspected.
  • Refusal to test if selected is considered the same as a failed test.

The aim is to minimize opportunities for substance abuse issues to impair officers’ work.

Drug Testing Methods Used on Officers

Various methods are utilized to check officers for illegal or unauthorized drug use:

  • Urine tests – The most common method. Detects many drugs or metabolites for up to 3 days after use.
  • Saliva swabs – Quicker but only reveal very recent drug use.
  • Hair testing – Traces drugs used over last 90 days but is more expensive.
  • Breathalyzers – Estimate blood alcohol levels from breaths to gauge intoxication.
  • Physical signs – Erratic behavior may also indicate drug abuse requiring testing.

Multiple testing approaches help build an accurate picture of any potential drug issues.

Consequences of Failed Prison Officer Drug Tests

UK prison staff face serious repercussions for confirmed substance abuse:

  • Officers testing positive receive a written warning for a first offense.
  • Second offence within 5 years leads to dismissal from the service.
  • Staff must pass return-to-work drug tests after any failed test.
  • Anyone found introducing drugs into a prison faces criminal prosecution.
  • Evidence of dealing drugs results in immediate dismissal and a police investigation.
  • Officers struggling with addiction are offered counseling support services.
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Maintaining a drug-free prison workforce is considered paramount.

Challenges of Staff Drug Testing in Prisons

While mandatory, implementing comprehensive drug testing of officers is not always straightforward:

  • Most UK prisons do not have on-site drug testing facilities.
  • Staff shortages can make escorting selected officers to external testing sites difficult.
  • Scheduling truly random tests is administratively burdensome.
  • Prison staff unions originally opposed testing policies as intrusive.
  • Some staff see limited deterrence value given infrequent testing.
  • Testing budgets were reduced between 2010-2018 during austerity cuts.

Ensuring full compliance remains an ongoing priority.

Is Drug Testing of Officers Reducing Abuse?

Despite difficulties, regular drug screening aims to minimize risks of staff substance abuse:

  • In 2020, only 0.06% of prison staff drug tests came back positive – 34 officers from 57,000 tests.
  • Between 2010 and 2020, positive test rates declined by 85% from 0.8% to 0.06%.
  • No officers tested positive for Class A drugs like heroin or cocaine in 2020.
  • Prison authorities claim testing acts as an effective deterrent to drug misuse by staff.
  • But occasional cases of officers attempting to smuggle drugs for inmates still emerge.
  • Unions argue lack of testing resources risks allowing some issues to slip through the cracks.

Overall, current UK prison officer drug policies appear largely fit for purpose.


In summary, all UK prison staff face mandatory drug testing both when hired and randomly throughout their careers. This is due to drug prevalence in jails and the risks of staff abuse issues. Methods used include urine tests, saliva swabs and breathalyzers. Confirmed drug misuse leads to dismissal after two offenses. Despite resource challenges, testing is credited with reducing officer drug abuse rates significantly compared to 1990-2000 levels. Maintaining the integrity of the prison workforce remains contingent on thorough anti-drug policies.

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Key Points:

  • UK prison officers must pass pre-employment drug tests since 1999.
  • Random drug screening of staff was introduced from 1996.
  • Around 5% undergo random urine, saliva, hair or alcohol tests yearly.
  • Two positives leads to dismissal; one warning is given for first offense.
  • Positive rates fell from 0.8% in 2010 to 0.06% in 2020.
  • Ensuring effective testing across all prisons remains challenging.


How often are UK prison officers drug tested?

Around 5% are randomly selected for drug testing each year. Some prisons may test more frequently depending on resources.

What methods test officers for drug use?

The main methods used are urine analysis, saliva swabs, hair sample testing and breathalyzers to detect alcohol intoxication.

What happens if a prison officer fails a drug test?

The first offense leads to a written warning. A second failed test within 5 years results in mandatory dismissal from the prison service.

Can prison officers refuse to take a drug test?

No, refusal to take a requested drug test is considered equivalent to testing positive. It can result in disciplinary action.

Are all UK prisons able to test their officers on-site?

No, many UK prisons do not have on-site drug testing facilities and have to transport selected staff to external laboratories which poses logistical issues.

Imran Khan

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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