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The impact of smuggled goods in prisons is clear for all to see

4 min read

Drones are being used to smuggle drugs and phones into Britain’s prisons and undermining safety. We must act now to regain control, writes David Hanson

Today’s prisons need to fulfil many functions: a place of rehabilitation, a place to learn new skills and a place to turn lives around. And, yes, a place for punishment.

But to do all that, above all a prison needs to be a place that is safe – where escape is not possible; where drugs do not enter, and where mobile phones are not smuggled in to intimidate witnesses, organise crime or run lucrative drugs trades from cells.

It has always been so, but as technology changes, the challenge changes. The old methods of smuggling often occurred via prison deliveries, visits, prisoners entering jail or simply drugs being thrown over the wall, or in some cases, sadly, via corrupt prison officers. These will, no doubt, continue, but new methods of smuggling – the use of drones in particular – are now on the rise.

In 2016, there were over 13,000 mobile phones discovered in prisons in England and Wales. Not only are mobiles being smuggled into prisons but figures show that over 6,800 SIM cards were smuggled into prisons in 2016. What is most concerning is that there were 18 instances where more than 20 SIM cards were smuggled into prison in one go, and 11 instances where more than 20 mobile phones were smuggled.

We also know from official statistics that an estimated 225kg of drugs were seized entering prison in 2016. Of that, there were 26 occasions where more than 1kg of drugs was attempted to be smuggled into prison.

These figures are only one part of the picture, however. What they don’t show is how many contraband items successfully entered prison. And it matters, because what comes into prison illegally becomes the currency of trouble inside.

The charge sheet for prison safety makes for bleak reading. Figures show that there were 295 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to December 2017, with three of these being homicides. Also, 70 self-inflicted deaths occurred. Added to this is the shocking statistic that there were 28,165 assaults, which includes prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prison officer figures, in the 12 months to December 2017; of these, 3,726 were serious assaults. Much of this violence is related to smuggling.

One of the explanations behind this rise in violence in prisons is the cut of over 7,000 prison officers since 2010. Now, the government is set to employ 2,000 new prison officers, but it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realise that leaves the prison estate short of 5,000 officers.

I have long put it to the conveyor belt of prison ministers that what they have achieved is not only a cut in officer numbers but the creation of a system where we have experienced prisoners and inexperienced prison officers: a recipe for disaster.

There has been some success. For example, 10 people were prosecuted for using drones to smuggle items into jails in Birmingham, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Liverpool and Perth. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The impact of smuggled goods through drones is clear for all to see. They are undermining prison safety, ruining rehabilitation and financing organised crime in our communities. But what is to be done? The government has stated that they have established “a specialist team of prison and police officers to improve our efforts to intercept and capture drones”. The former Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss MP, even suggested that barking dogs would be key to solving the problem.

However, I contend that the only way to tackle technology is with technology. Airbus has already displayed how it can track and then jam the drone, stopping it from progressing further into an area. The Ministry of Justice needs to investigate the ability to install this around sensitive sites. They also need to redouble efforts to block mobile phones, with formal blockers if need be, as they are key for ordering items by drone and lining the pockets of organised criminal gangs.

Restoring order to prisons is vital. Practical measures should now be put in place to regain control over the smuggling of drugs and other items. If no action is taken, we will see new psychoactive substances (NPS) usage rise, safety fall and rehabilitation become toothless.

The key to prevention is staffing. We must ensure that new technology is combined with well supported prison officers who can detect and remove contraband as people attempt to get it into prisons.


David Hanson is Labour MP for Delyn and a former Minister of State for Security

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