Don't overstate drug drone threat to our prisons - ex-governor
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the menace of drones.
Who could have missed the blanket news coverage of the problems drones caused at Gatwick Airport over Christmas?
Drones are also being blamed for smuggling drugs to prison inmates but, as a former prison governor, I think the threat being posed by the new technology is being overstated.
Let’s get one thing straight. Drugs in prisons are nothing new.
Take a crossbow bolt and attach to it a length of dental floss, as long as you like. Insert the bolt into the bow and pick your window. During my 13- year career as a prison governor this was one of the more basic ways I have known dealers to get their drugs into prison.
To work you had to first occupy an elevated position outside the walls and target the external windowsill of the prison cell for which the cargo is destined. A degree of knowledge of the prison layout was needed. Then you take a steady aim and fire.
A skilful archer would land the bolt within easy reach of the customer. The cell’s occupant simply had to stick his or her arms out of the window and reel in the floss, at the other end of which was attached the spice, cocaine, heroin or any other contraband that they ordered. Bingo!
No other method I know has ever been as direct in its delivery to the customer.
Fast forward to 2019 and the attention is on the use of drone technology to traffic drugs into our prisons.
Last year a court jailed seven members of a gang who used drones to fly more than £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons. In total they made 55 drone deliveries in a 15-month period.
Now technology is being used to combat the drones. A company called SkyFence uses electronic countermeasures systems to prevent drones from flying into or close to a protected location by disrupting its navigation radio transmissions. At least one prison is reported to have tested it.
For me drones are no more effective than throwing a drug-packed tennis ball over the wall, or catapulting a stash haphazardly in the hope that it will land somewhere that the intended recipient can retrieve it.
Each of these methods requires a prisoner to have open access to the grounds and to be able to secure the goods. This makes it much harder for the drugs to arrive at their destination.
The reality is hiding drugs in a baby’s nappy or exchanging contraband during a kiss at visiting time is probably as effective as drones but it attracts only a fraction of the media space.
So do drones have a place in UK prisons? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. They would be of much greater use to the prison authorities in searching for items in the grounds than they ever would be to the criminals.
Jarrod Kay was a UK prison governor from 1997 to 2010. He also has experience of prisons in the USA and has worked as a prison consultant, having set up a mentoring programme for the Ministry of Interior, Abu Dhabi. He is currently training as journalist.