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On the trail of drug smugglers in prison

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Raphael Rowe | 11:10 UK time, Sunday, 2 August 2009

Those who have read my profile will know I spent many years in prison, so I have an insight, even if slightly outdated, about the inner workings of the prison system. The court of appeal quashed my conviction, for crimes I did not commit, in 2000 and I was freed from prison.

But not before I spent a number of years, in a number of different prisons and witnessed many drug deals and drug takers. I was there when the Mandatory Drug Test (MDT) was first introduced, back in 1996, so saw first hand the impact it had.

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I had acquaintances that shifted from smoking cannabis to chasing the dragon, smoking heroin, in an attempt to avoid being caught by the MDT: A trace of heroin doesn't stay in your system as long as cannabis so the chances of being tested positively and punished were reduced.

My insight aside, the link between drugs, crime and prison is all too apparent. So what are the Government and prison service doing to break that link especially inside?
Many who work in this field argue if you can get criminals on drugs, off drugs, whilst they're serving a prison sentence the chance is they won't commit crime on the out to feed their habit. More than half of the 80,000-prison population test positive for drugs when entering jail.

The prison service spends more than 100 million a year on drug rehabilitation, but only 6 million is dedicated to disrupting the supply of drugs into prison.

So in "Smugglers' Tales" we ask if the prison service is doing enough to stop the flow of drugs and mobile phones getting into. We look at the technology and simple search methods.

Prisoners are not allowed mobile phones or use of the Internet. Prison officers are not even authorized to take their own mobile phones into prisons and anyone caught with one can be sentenced to 2 years inside.

Yet we have a couple of amazing stories where prisoners make phone calls from their cells using mobile phones. We hear a prisoner calling the police on a mobile from his cell trying to find out where a female prison officer is after she'd been arrested for attempting to bring him drugs.

There is a constant cat and mouse game played out by prisoners trying to get drugs, mobile phones or other contraband in and prison staff who are trying to keep it out.
I spent six days inside Woodhill Category A High Security prison in Milton Keynes, not as a prisoner this time, but as an observer.

The fact there were nearly 9,000 mobile phones and sim cards found in prisons last year, and nearly 5,000 individual drug seizures doesn't tell the whole story.

The prison services don't record the quantity or weight of each find, not all phones found are sent of for analysis and so the true extent of the problem is unknown.

The former head of prisons drugs strategy put the drug trade worth at 100 million a year. When I spoke with a prison source high up in security they put it at least 22 million.

There are five main routes for drugs to get into prisons: Visitors; corrupt staff; over the wall stuffed in dead pigeons or tennis balls; prisoners who attend court hearings expecting to go to jail and through the post.

We obtained some classic CCTV footage of drug handovers in visiting halls showing women pulling it out from between their legs and images of what look like parents, wives, friends and girlfriends slipping drug parcels to the prisoner.

It's a fact of life that there are drugs in every prison in the country.

The prison service accepts this and has a professional and motivated response, but it also recognizes it is a challenge that will need constant adaptation to match the ingenious methods used to get drugs and mobile phones in.


  • Comment number 1.

    Reference to drugs and contraband in prison
    have the authorities never thought of visitors
    and inmates seperated by a sheet of plate glass

  • Comment number 2.

    Human rights mate

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    highrisetim writes 'Human rights mate'. A simple three word phrase bandied about by the criminal fraternity who know their rights "mate", championed by the blinkered, lilly-livered, liberal establishment, but conveniently disregard their responsibilities. Criminals are in prison because they have deprived someone to a greater or lesser degree of a right to live unhindered by crime. The american system of no personal contact between prisoners and visitors should be taken up here, leaving prison staff to police themselves to ensure the contraband supply is minimised. It'll never happen here because no one will have the stomach for it and it might not be a vote winner.

  • Comment number 5.

    As a serving Drugs Dog Handler all I can say is that there is a will by the Officers to stop the smuggling of drugs but unfortunately our hands are tied by the European Human Rights act. We could stop the majority of it by tomorrow.

    My ways may be a bit extreme but I would also have corrupt staff in stocks on display outside the establishment minus their genitalia !!.

    A balanced article from the BBC and not accusations about BENT WARDERS ......blimey !!.

  • Comment number 6.

    I am rather confused about why mobile phones in prison is a problem. Mobile phone are extremely easy to detect, the mobile phone networks merely need to be told the location of the prison and continuously monitor time and number of any phone calls made in or out.

    As an alternative, why not simply form an electronic screen around prisons so ALL mobile phone signals are rendered useless.

  • Comment number 7.

    I worked as a Senior Officer in the Prison Service for 8 years. Drugs are a real problem with in UK Prisons with big money exchanging hands. I have known of some Prisoners who have been happy to go to Prison so as to be dealers making money on the inside. More searches should be carried out not just to stop drugs but to stop the money that is swapping hands being available. Prison officers have their hands full in this fight. As the report states drugs are brought in via visitors, over the wall, those coming back from the courts and sadly via a small percentage of staff. That said, some are happy to allow Prisoners access to drugs as a means of controlling an ever increasing Prison population that is supervised by such a small amount of officers. It appears that as long as we dont hear of riots in Prison or abuse that as a general public we are happy to turn a blind eye to this problem as if it doesnt affect us, but it does. Whilst closed visits would only restrict the amount of drugs that enter prisons, it would increase their value and make the pay for bringing drugs in to prisons more attractive as the price went up. I believe more searches should be taken out, and that all staff entering prisons should be searched every day with higher Prison Sentences being given to those who are found to violate the law.

  • Comment number 8.

    The amount smuggled by visitors is minimal compared with that smuggled by staff

    absolute tosh jackie_s_croydon you have no facts or figures to back that statement up ...sheer libelous lies!

  • Comment number 9.

    As an alternative, why not simply form an electronic screen around prisons so ALL mobile phone signals are rendered useless.

    emergency services are allowed mobiles within prisons allowing ambulance crews to get instant advice whilst answering emergency calls ,so not practical

  • Comment number 10.

    I have a mate who is a prison guard. He assures me that the biggest source of goods smuggles into the prisons is carried out by the staff. There is no excuse for this. Outside agencies can be brought in to do random checks and searches on staff but their unions won't allow it. In addition they could be subjected to Compulsory Drug Testing (CDT) the same as the armed forces and face the same punishment - immediate dismisal and loss of pension rights.

    As for mobile phones, there is no reason why the signal can't be jammed. The mobiles that are needed by the prison staff can be shifted to a different frequency band and they can also be 'chipped' so that if they ever get lost or stolen they can be disabled.

    There really isn't any

  • Comment number 11.

    Bruno Vece an Innocent man doing 20years!
    Never broken a rule hard working family man.
    This case will become public.
    Has been offered all those "niceties" mentioned,whilst held locally.

  • Comment number 12.

    Maybe the prisons in question were purposely letting criminals "do business" via phone as it would eventually build up intelligence of a network of the whole industry, and then officers could pounce...

  • Comment number 13.

    The fact is content prisoners don't climb onto roofs and throw tiles. So it's in the interests of harmony to let drugs into prisons.

  • Comment number 14.

    Maybe the UK prison service could learn from Singapore. They make all entrants to their prison system sit in an ultrasound chair designed to detect drugs even if they are hidden in body cavities. In addition, all prisoners are extensively (and intrusively) searched upon each entry to the prison from outside.

  • Comment number 15.

    It is perfectly technically possible, even easy, to prevent mobiles being used in prisons (basically by 'capturing' phones in a dummy base station). This could also detect and locate phones in use.

    The authorities cannot be taking this very seriously.

  • Comment number 16.

    1 - Most of the old jails are in the centre of Citys. If we used a jamming device to stop the phones the surrounding area would be effected.
    2 - The large amounts of substances are thrown over the walls. I intercepted nearly £600,000 worth of drugs in a eight month period lying in the grounds.BBC came to report upon my success. When the News item went out it was twisted by the reporter to say how badly we doing in the fight against illegal substances. Good news does not sell.

  • Comment number 17.

    Red Lenin
    If you really have a mate who works as a Prison Officer you would know that he/she is not a GUARD !!.

    This figure of 1300 bent Prison Officers was banded about a few years ago when we where in dispute with the Government, funny how it rears it head again when they are trying to force a new contract on us.

  • Comment number 18.

    I was quite impressed by the ingenuity of some of the prisoners - watercolour drugs and makeshift weapons made from bed sheets or socks and tins of tuna.

    What a shame this inventive spirit isn't being put to better use.

    Decent, paying work in prisons should be of great benefit to idle hands and further equip prisoners for legitimate work on their release.

    To read more about the challenges of setting up a real business in Coldingley prison, why not take a look at [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 19.

    A simple solution for mobile phone use is to instal jamming devices within prisons, then phones would be totally useless! no doubt the phone companys would not be happy.

  • Comment number 20.

    Woops - hadn't realised that the link I recommended wasn't allowed on the site (it linked to a document that needed software installed to load it).

    Anyway, I was referring to a project established by the Howard League called Barbed - a graphic design studio inside a prison that was run as a proper business.

    A design studio inside a prison is unusual. In fact, it’s unique. It’s hard to believe it worked; but it did - extremely well.

    Barbed produced work as varied as business cards, annual reports, posters and exhibition banners. The studio had a very positive vibe and there was a real team spirit. This was reflected in the quality of the work.

    You can read more about it at http://www.howardleague.org/774/

    Any other bright ideas for businesses which could be run in prisons?


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