AN inmate caught with Spice at a jail struggling to cope with the psychoactive drug has walked free from court – sparking outrage with prison officer chiefs.

A judge said he would have sent Shaun Birch back to custody if the offence had not been committed in 2016 when the problems were not as widely known.

The 40-year-old was initially the subject of disciplinary proceedings at Holme House Prison, Stockton, but was released just a month after the find when he finished his sentence.

He was interviewed by police after being freed, but was not summonsed to court until February this year, and has only just been dealt with.

At Teesside Crown Court, Judge Peter Armstrong imposed a suspended 12-month jail sentence along with a six-month drug rehabilitation requirement.

He told Birch: "Had this been a recent case, it might have been appropriate to pass a deterrent sentence as a warning to others that this cannot be tolerated.

"It is an important fact that this was 2016 because it is in recent times that the problem of Spice in prison has become extremely serious. It is a real problem. There was a kilo found recently."

But last night, the Prison Officers Association's (POA) acting vice-chairman reacted angrily, and told The Northern Echo: "This sends out the wrong message.

"It is an extremely lenient sentence and it gives prison officers no confidence at all that anyone within the judicial system understands the pressures prison officers have to work with every day."

Last year, the Echo reported that staff at the jail were "dropping like flies" after inadvertently inhaling the dangerous substance.

The POA said there been up to 22 Spice-related incidents, many including violence, in a single day, leaving many officers hallucinating with racing heartbeats.

Officials issued a safety alert as a 5.6kg stash of a substance believed to be Spice, was discovered in cappuccino, Oats-so-Simple and Weetabix packets during two cell searches – thought to be the largest haul of a psycho-active substance ever found in a UK prison.

Birch was secretly watched as he made small wraps of the drug in his cell on September 30, 2016, before putting them in the waistband and pockets of his tracksuit, and a larger "sausage-shaped" package down the back of his pants.

When he was later searched, officers found a total of 5.3g of Spice – worth £530 – and a makeshift weapon was discovered in his cell.

Birch said he had been forced by other inmates, who he would not name, to "wrap and plug" because he had run up debts after becoming addicted to the drug behind bars.

His lawyer, Julian Gaskin, told Judge Armstrong: "The hallmarks of significantly nasty manipulation of a vulnerable individual are clear to be seen.

"When considering the impact on prisons, Your Honour may well look at him as a case study in his own right. He went into prison, was seen as vulnerable, was introduced to Spice, became addicted, and because of a debt, was forced to store it.

"It is a regrettable incident and it is certainly regrettable it has taken the length of time it has to come before the court."

As the union confirmed drugs were being smuggled into jails on an industrial scale, it revealed unprecedented numbers of its officers were being hit by Spice fumes, which can be smoked, vaporised in a boiling kettle or impregnated into objects such as paper.

Mr Fullerton said: "The effects of Spice and the widespread problems it causes have been known for some time. I find the comments bizarre.

"The effects were obvious and visible to everybody who could see what was happening when these people were using it, and it was also affecting staff.

"It is widespread across the country, it is the drug of choice at the moment and it is causing major problems.

"When you have someone having the effects, 99 per cent of the time they have to go to hospital and they need escorts, so we lose staff, but quite often staff are affected as well, and they have needed hospital treatment.

"It gives prison officers no confidence at all that they are being protected, because they are absolutely not being protected by sentences like this."

Birch, of Londonderry Road, Stockton, admitted two charges of possessing a psychoactive substance with intent to supply – covering the different types that were found.