Inmate Dies After Accidentally Setting Himself on Fire While Smoking Zombie Drug Spice

A prisoner at a British jail has died after setting himself on fire while smoking the illegal synthetic cannabinoid known as "Spice."

The BBC reported that the unnamed inmate, aged 31, died in the accident in September 2018. The incident was detailed in the annual report from the U.K.'s Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which is tasked with investigating complaints made by prisoners.

Spice is the name of a specific brand of synthetic cannabinoid, but due to its notoriety has become a generic term for the entire class of drugs, the Guardian explained. It has been described as a "zombie" drug due to its potent psychoactive nature which can leave users unable to move or interact with others.

The drug was initially legal, only being banned in 2016. It has become extremely popular in U.K. jails. Presenting the report, ombudsman Sue McAllister said psychoactive drugs remained a "serious problem" in British prisons. Overall, there were 60 drug-related deaths in U.K. jails last year.

The September 2018 incident occurred at HMP Hewell prison in Redditch, Worcestershire. The man—named only as N—had been jailed for robbery. He reportedly had a history of drug problems. McAllister said authorities had offered the man support for his drug usage, but that he had "failed to engage."

The Ombudsman report explained that N may not have reacted to catching on fire "because he was under the influence of the drug." Eventually, the man rang his cell's emergency bell, but it still took prison officers 16 minutes to react.

McAllister said this delay was "unacceptable," and suggested that N's life "might have been saved" had the response been quicker.

When officers reached the man, they were met with a smoke-filled cell and could hear N calling out for help. Once other staff arrived and put out the fire, officers found N sitting on his bed with his clothes burned off and severe burns over much of his body.

Though conscious, the report said the prisoner "appeared unable to comply with staff instructions." He was taken to hospital for treatment but died two days later.

McAllister described the incident as "very tragic and very distressing." An investigation has been opened into the death and disciplinary proceedings were opened against one of the prison officers, who resigned before the process concluded.

The report said there was a "worrying" level of Spice use in British jails. It added that drugs were "readily available" and that prison authorities are "struggling to stem the supply," despite increased government funding to try and quell the problem.

The report also shed a light on deeply concerning mental health and personal safety trends among prisoners. Self-inflicted prison deaths in England and Wales increased by 23 percent from 2018 to 2019, with "worryingly high numbers" in some specific prisons, McAllister explained.

spice, drugs, prison, inmate, fire
This file photo shows a selection of Spice packets n a shop in north London, on August 28, 2009. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images/Getty