Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Drones in Prisons and HMP

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drones, as they are more commonly known, defy gravity. They can’t quite pick a prisoner up and take him out over a fence, but their defiance of gravity can certainly deliver contraband like weapons over that same fence into a prison. So, is the high prison wall of yore, no longer a barrier to illicit drug deals in our prisons?

Amazon has introduced UAV delivery trials. Even the White House had a surprise visit during Barack Obama’s tenure in 2015. So, what hope for our beleaguered and underfunded HMPs?

Given some of the truly remarkable ways I have seen and heard about contraband moving in and out of prison, it’s hardly surprising that criminals would embrace drones. The Independent recently reported that NOMS (National Offender Management Service) along with the NCA (National Crime Agency) is investigating serious and organised crime networks after finding links to some of the recovered drones. But, frankly, organised criminals are not required. This technology is not beyond the reach of a ‘couple of mates.’

While one prison official was quoted as saying “you need a high level of skill” to fly one of these with pinpoint accuracy, I would caution two things. First, you don’t need pinpoint accuracy for most C and D cats. These relatively open prisons enjoy a wide range of undetectable areas. Never mind these establishments frequently receive bundles of contraband thrown over their fences (if they have fences at all).

A and B cats, while more complicated, hardly require a degree in astrophysics either. For a particularly illustrative (and amusing) example see the findings of HMP Pentonville’s Independent Monitoring Board, which concluded in July 2016 that much of the threat posed to the prison by drones was due to it having some 100 broken windows. A problem that had apparently been well known to staff and (by virtue of them being housed there) inmates, for 2 years. The report also concluded that a “big difference” could be made by simply fixing the windows. Rocket science indeed.

Add into this the proclivity of prisoners (in lower category prisons) and the public at large for playing games consoles for several hours a day, and it should be apparent that flying a drone doesn’t take any more skill than a 1,000-yard “headshot” on the latest Call of Duty video game.

The use of drones for smuggling contraband into prisons is certainly on the rise. Government figures show 0 recorded incidents in 2013, 2 in 2014, before spiking to 33 foiled attempts in 2015. This upward trajectory is likely to continue as technology improves and commercially available drones become ever cheaper, and thus more viable for criminal use.

You can now purchase a low-performance drone from most catalogue stores for as little as £80, a drone able to bear heavier loads and able to utilise GPS is available for a few hundred. Hardly a large investment for an enterprising narcotics dealer. Especially when you consider the prison value of drugs would likely return this investment in 1-2 successful operations.

All this paints a very bleak picture. Drones as a means of smuggling drugs and other contraband over the wall and into prisons is on the rise. But the question persists whether this is as big a problem as the current media storm suggests?

The MoJ certainly seems to think so. The 33 incidents in 2015 saw a novel offence created by legislators in November of that year. The Serious Crime Act 2015, added “throwing or projecting an article into prison” (or conspiracy to do so) as a criminal offence in England and Wales. July 2016 saw the first man jailed for this offence, Daniel Kelly was convicted and sentenced to 14 months for “conspiracy to project an article into prison”. After being caught attempting to pilot a drone containing synthetic cannabinoid Spice, as well as tobacco, into HMP Swaleside in Kent. While Mr. Kelly was a historic first, more convictions followed before the end of the year. 

Alongside this, there has been much debate in parliament as to how best to rid prisons of the scourge of drones. From Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss’ bizarre assertion that “barking dogs” are a viable option for discouraging drones to less embarrassing suggestions such as trialing the use of birds of prey (a practice regularly used by the Dutch prison system). From which, a decision was made in April 2017 to create a special task force, run by the prison service, to detect and combat drones being used for smuggling activity. The details are somewhat murky but reports suggest £3m has been earmarked for the deployment of a specialist team.

Yet for all this, a question hangs over the motives of both the MoJ and the prison service in hitting the apparent issue of drones with quite so much force. The hand-wringing by MP's and resultant creation of a new offence and the earmarking of public funds for a task force; feel more like a savvy PR exercise or a sop to media pressure, rather than a panacea for the very real problems of contraband and widespread drug abuse in our prisons.

Simply put, drones are an easy target. They carry with them the glamour of new technology and present the current administration as able to adapt and combat 21st-century crime. All the while creating a small but symbolic win for the prisons themselves, who are waging their own desperate PR war to try and convey some semblance of control and competence.

Why so cynical? It’s a case of the numbers not adding up. While the MoJ and HMPs would have the public believe otherwise, mobile phones are commonplace in prisons. In fact, it's estimated some 10,000 illicit phones are discovered in prison each year.

Anyone who wants a mobile phone in prison, and has the means, can have one. They can even be rented. Conducting criminal enterprise from behind bars is nothing new, for an extreme example, look at HMP Wandsworth and the £30m drug deal orchestrated on MoJ computers, smuggled phones and internet dongles reported in August 2015.

The same is true of narcotics themselves, with around 10,000 drugs packages being seized by prison authorities in 2014. The use of synthetic cannabinoid Spice has tripled between December 2014 and April 2016 according to a recent report by charity User Voice.  Callouts of all emergency services to jails have risen by 52% from 14,475 in 2011 to 22,055 in 2015, with a large proportion of these drug related.

To suggest such widespread use is the result of drones is not only patently false but also utterly illogical. 33 recorded incidents of drone usage in 2015 does not equate to 10,000 illicit phones seized in the same year (unless we assume that drones are bringing in phones by the hundred) or the soaring levels of drug abuse within prisons. In fact, drones usually carry low value, lightweight contraband; such as SIM cards, illicit tobacco and small quantities low-value drugs.

The reason behind this is simple: drones are hardly inconspicuous. Anyone who would use them to smuggle high-value contraband into prison does so with a sizeable risk of being caught. If we assume that most drug deals have an initial outlay or commitment in the purchasing of the product, it’s a big risk to take for any dealer who’s spent (or owes) a large sum of money.

In short, no one is going to risk putting drugs with a value of £2,000 (worth up to six times that amount inside) on a drone for it to get lost in transit because somebody has to pay for it. The same rationale can be applied to mobile phones and tablets, would you risk the loss of merchandise worth hundreds of pounds, if less speculative methods exist?

Which poses the question, what are these methods? How are so many drugs and mobile phones defying traditional prison defences, such as regular searches, drugs dogs and the physical isolation of the prison itself?

Methods of smuggling contraband beyond the prison wall are numerous and vary from the imaginative to the crude, what unites them all is either administrative cooperation or incompetence.

For instance, we’ve all seen the “charger” or the drugs wrapped in a condom of gangster movie yore. Hiding contraband internally is still a method used by some inmates. Staff cannot conduct internal examinations, partly due to resource and partly due to the questions this would raise around intrusiveness and prisoners' human rights.

For proof that this most ancient of methods is still in practice, see the story of Daniel Harrington reported in January 2017. Following his conviction at a magistrate's court, Mr. Harrington was discovered by Staff at HMP Hull with a haul of 2 mobile phones, a charger, SIM card and herbal medicines in his anal cavity. From my own experience, I heard stories from several inmates who smuggled in drugs or phones this way. However, it's worth noting that this is a relatively extreme and inefficient method, due to physical discomfort and the limitations on quantity posed by human anatomy. 

Far more common is the complicity of prisoners’ loved ones in smuggling in contraband. This generally takes one of two forms, through letters and packages or on visits to the prison. If the use of social visits sounds obvious, it’s because it is. Prisons generally require visitors to pass through airport-style metal detectors and submit to a full body search before entering the prison proper. Nevertheless, a significant number of packages still get through, metal detection and searches don't preclude a small well-placed wrap. Given the understaffed and overworked nature of most prison administrations, it isn't hard to imagine how harried prison guards may on occasion fail to be thorough in their search and rush visitors through in attempting to keep the process moving.

The same can be said for contraband hidden in the external post. While in theory prison staff are supposed to search all inbound post to guard against would-be drug smugglers, the reality is that staffing levels don’t allow for everything to be searched, something only exacerbated by the current shortage of sniffer dogs in UK prisons. All of which means that what was once an unlikely method has become far more commonplace.

Another method I witnessed during my time in a D category, where security is, by definition, laxer, was for outside parties to simply throw contraband over the prison wall. This isn’t quite as brazen as it sounds, deliveries are often confined to CCTV blind spots (of which most prisons have many) or clandestinely concealed in a tennis ball thrown for a dog that doesn’t give chase. Again, this method relies upon understaffing (a lack of prison guards to patrol these areas) and scant resourcing (the limited amount of CCTV available to most prisons).

The methods described so far are undoubtedly part of the problem but are negligible in comparison to the vast “unspoken” issue which lies behind the transfer of contraband into prisons. Staff corruption and complicity.

Staff corruption comes in several guises; turning a blind eye in the post room, failing to properly search visitors or even bringing the contraband in themselves. Due (as ever) to short staffing, security checks on staff entrances to prisons are notoriously sloppy. Allowing prison staff to bring in drugs, phones and other contraband unimpeded by regular checks.

Take the case of Richard Stack, a 35-year-old prison inspector jailed in 2016 for smuggling SIM cards, drugs and steroids into HMP Birmingham. He had worked there for 11 years and it isn’t clear how many of those were spent cheating the system.

Prison officers like Richard Stack are likely to be more commonplace than is freely admitted. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45386076) What's more probable is that Richard and others like him are the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the unlucky fall guys whose convictions mask an endemic culture of corruption. Empirical proof is hard to come by (for obvious reasons there aren’t figures on prison corruption) but the sheer number of drugs and phones in our prisons, alongside countless prisoner testimonies, bear this out.

To give another example, during my first few hours in prison I witnessed inmates passing drugs between themselves in the holding area of HMP Thameside. This before we had even entered the prison proper, two things about which are striking: firstly, that the drugs must have been given to them in court or at some time during transit, and secondly that this went on in the presence of “supervisory” staff.

There are a plethora of reasons as to why prison staff engage in smuggling. Some do so for personal enrichment: prison guards have never been well paid and resolve is undoubtedly weakened by the prospect of extra income. Some do so out of fear, Richard Stack did so out of fear that prisoners “knew where he lived in the city”. Some do so because they are former inmates themselves and have links to the prison underworld. Some (particularly the young and inexperienced) are easily manipulated. Some are even the victims of blackmail: a particularly grim story doing the rounds at Serco's Thameside was of a female guard who had been covertly filmed performing oral sex on an inmate and then made to bring in drugs for a prison gang, for fear of losing her job and ending up in prison herself. The use of illicit romantic or sexual relationships for leverage by less scrupulous inmates is surprisingly common.

The reasons are not as important as the reality: most prisoners can relay stories of staff either turning a blind eye to smuggling or being directly complicit. What is too often lacking is proof beyond the anecdotal accounts of prisoners and former staff. Whether this will change as the current spice epidemic (current figures show a 30% usage rate in some prisons) begins to take its toll, both in prisoner lives and spiralling medical costs, remains to be seen. But my money is on a large-scale incident, whether that’s a riot or another incident like the Wandsworth drug scam, which stirs prison administrators from their current inertia.

A final alternative to drones worth considering is the ever-increasing role of independent contractors in our prisons, in many ways the ugly step brother of staff corruption. While we’ve all heard about the string of scandals implicating Sodexo and G4S, what’s discussed less often is how individuals working for private companies such as building or maintenance firms are the perfect foil for bringing contraband into prison.

There a several reasons for this; one these individuals have little stake in the prison itself. In a nutshell, the emotional and professional investment in the smooth running of the prison, or the inmate’s welfare, isn’t there. Couple this with the low wages of say, a prison cleaner, and the temptation to make a quick buck by smuggling in drugs or phones is likely to exercise a greater pull.

Secondly, these contractors are far more accessible for local criminal networks. Most of them are normal people and are afforded little protection outside the workplace, despite their close contact with prisoners. As such, once criminals know someone works in the local prison, they become extremely vulnerable to coercion through blackmail or threats. Leaving little choice but to do the bidding of criminals who would seek to smuggle contraband into prison.

The flipside to this those who do so voluntarily, while contractors are subject to basic DBS and background checks, there is very little in the way of a safety net to catch those who have links to criminal groups either in prison or in the local community. Which raises the spectre of local criminals (with clean or minor records) getting low-skilled jobs at firms contracted to prisons as a cover for smuggling operations. If that sounds a little too Hollywood, consider that one of the criminals involved in the 2015 HMP Wandsworth drugs scam had been paid to get himself convicted, in order to coordinate efforts from inside. The sophistication of the smuggling operations in UK prisons should caution against viewing anything as fantastical. In my own experience, it’s this complacency on the part of the authorities which proves such a boon for smugglers.

Which brings us back to drones, that the MoJ and prison service are doing everything possible to seem non-complacent and alive to the issue of drones is interesting, if with an element of farce. As figures demonstrate, drones are but a drop in the ocean of illicit use of drugs and contraband within prison.

The current clampdown on drones is likely to achieve nothing more symbolic than PR victory for the government and HMP’s themselves. A highly visible “threat”, which has captured the imagination of the public (for proof of which pick a hysterical tabloid headline) and which is relatively easy to counter is an absolute gift to the MoJ, in what’s been a trying few years for the reputation of UK prisons. At last, they can be seen to be doing something! Meanwhile, the larger concerns (staff corruption and contraband brought in by outside contractors) are likely to continue unabated.

Written by Rob Stafford and Kreg Mills

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