Monday, April 17, 2017

Drones and Phones

To be fair, anything involving flying stuff is inherently more interesting than “I threw a ball stuffed with weed over a wall”. Drones have a whiff of the Mission Impossible. Basic media clickbait.

And also apparently catnip to our Ministry of Justice leaders. Drones, they have declared, pose a real risk to the security of prisons by smuggling in drugs and mobile phones.

Oh, that’s a lie. You weren’t meant to notice, but even the MOJ figures place the number of drone incursions to prisons in the dozens. Not hundreds, dozens. Whilst Liz Truss indulges her Tom Cruise fantasies, drugs and mobiles pour into prisons and will continue to do so.

is a masterpiece of irrelevancy. If the problem being addressed is the smuggling of contraband, the starting point must be – How are drugs and mobiles smuggled into prison? The answer shapes the policy response. All nice and rational.

Here we sink into murky waters. There is very patchy data on how and what is smuggled into prison. Measuring covert illegality is always an interesting criminological challenge. The MOJ has comprehensive data on what staff find, but this is not publicly available…

We do know over 10,000 mobile phones/SIM are found annually. I invite you to check the weight of mobiles, the carrying capacity of cheap drones…And with under 50 drone incursions a year, any hint that drones have a significant impact on the supply of mobiles is plain ridiculous. For the Minister of Justice to make this claim is staggeringly dishonest.

Drugs pose the same mathematical challenge to the MOJ claims. Tens of thousands of drug users. The weight of drugs. The sparse number of drones. On what we do know, the idea that drugs delivered by drones has a significant impact is again plainly absurd. Its physically impossible that drones are doing what Truss claims they are. This is so obvious that Truss’ statements must either be deliberate lies, sheer stupidity, or plain incompetence.

To address the basic question – how does contraband enter prison – we must rely on deduction and prisoner experience as well as the thin data. An unsatisfactory basis on which to build a policy, but such difficulties are common in criminal justice issues.

Prisoners and their visitors are usually blamed for smuggling. Every public effort HMP makes against smuggling focuses on prisoners and their visitors. Some glimpse into what a “domestic visit” entails would inform debate here.

A prisoners visitors must be in receipt of a permission slip (Visiting Order) and sufficient identity documents. Personal possessions, sans a few quid to buy refreshments, are removed and stored. The visitor is then searched, a “rub down”; essentially, a prolonged indecent assault. Babies and nappies included. Visitors are then sniffed at by drug dogs, and then scanned or wanded – a metal detector.

Only then do they enter the Visits Room. To sit on fixed seating opposite their prisoner. Under constant staff and CCTV surveillance. I’ve been in Visits rooms where there were as many cameras as tables.

On exit, the prisoner is then searched. Rubdown, strip, squat, metal detector…

If I have given you the impression that smuggling contraband in a visits room is difficult…Its because it is. It can be very difficult indeed. How exactly does a mobile phone get through this procedure? 10,000 mobile phones?

The widely spread idea that the major route of contraband is via prisoners domestic visits collapses in the face of the visits security procedures I’ve delineated. They are so oppressive that as these security procedures were brought in, and despite the prison population nearly doubling, the number of people visiting prisoners halved. Prisoners families being the major source of contraband is a myth that needs to die in order to address the actual problem.

In contrast to the security procedures imposed on visitors, prison staff are at best subject to the occasional random rub-down search. From their colleagues. We have to end this pretence that prison staff do not pose a massive risk to security. Drones can carry gramms. Staff can carry ounces.

Anyone familiar with the experiences of (ex Gov) John Podmore will share the frustration at the perpetual refusal of the Prison Service to address staff corruption. It is a subject on which the MOJ, HMP and POA are in perpetual denial.

The most simple analysis of the contraband issue reveals that the issue isn’t drones. It flatly isn’t the problem. Staff corruption is the major source of contraband. And in focusing on drones and refusing to get to grips with the actual problem, Truss is being worse than merely ineffective.

In focusing on drones and ignoring the actual problem, our Minister Truss is condemning prisons to a future of rotten staff culture, rampant drug misuse, and predictably awful reoffending rates.

For a Minister of Justice, delivering such a future should consign them to political oblivion.







  1. Hi Ben,
    I was a GP in Birmingham for 30 years, and my patients told me, as you confirm, that it was staff of various kinds, who brought in most of the drugs.
    However they also told me that for many of the staff, this was not a free choice, but an obligation imposed on them by some powerful inmates, who were experts in the art of intimidation, who would inform the staff member that they had been followed home, and that "friends" know where they live, where their children go to school etc., and that they had better help with transportation or harm could be done.
    There would need to be something maybe like a "whistleblowers charter" to allow these staff members to put in anonymous tips without putting themselves and their families at risk of retribution.
    I have also been told by staff, that things were much better in the old days, when a blind eye could be turned to a smell of cannabis emanating from the wing, because "a wing on cannabis was a quiet wing". Advances in testing have chased us towards these horrible chemical highs which cause so much more chaos and harm.
    I don't have any quick-fix answers. Apart from maybe we could prescribe "medicinal cannabis" for the stress of prison life?..

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  4. Also of note is that , even when staff are caught, and prosecuted, they end up in open conditions surprisingly quickly. Lots of staff are caught, not so many are prosecuted.

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