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Who’s taking drugs into prison?
Cuts in public expenditure have resulted in very well-publicised shortages of prison staff. It may well be that these figures fall in 2014/15 , not because there are less drugs getting into our prisons, but because there are less prison staff to detect them.

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Prison Drug Markets

Drug markets are always fascinating to study because they evolve so quickly. As soon as police started targeting open drug markets, drug dealers moved to a mobile phone approach with drugs and money strictly separated to avoid detection and arrest. More recently, an increasing proportion of drugs is bought on the Internet – reducing the legal risks to sellers even further.

Prison drug markets are even more fascinating, requiring even more innovation from those trying to get drugs inside and sell them. prison drug marketsI was part of a team from ICPR which undertook a study into prison drug markets for the Home Office back in 2005. We found that there was a wide range of methods used for getting drugs into prison including:

  • Hidden in mail and parcels;
  • Thrown over the prison wall in oranges and dead birds;
  • Brought in by visitors; and
  • Brought in by prisoners themselves usually concealed in their anus.

When we did the study, about half of the prisoners and prison staff we interviewed also said that drugs were being brought in by prison staff, although we found very few proven examples of this.

Thanks to yet another Freedom of Information request, we now have up-to-date information about the number of prisoners, visitors and prison staff caught bringing drugs into prison.


Supply routes

The FOI request asked how many visitors, staff and prisoners were caught attempting to smuggle illegal drugs into each prison in England in each of the last four years. In the 2013/14 financial year:

  • A total of 296 visitors were arrested for trying to bring drugs into English prisons
  • 25 prison staff were “dismissed, excluded or convicted” for being caught trying to bring drugs into prison.
  • 1694 prisoners were caught in possession of drugs whilst in prison (the MoJ does not hold information on the number of prisoners caught attempting to bring drugs into prison).

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether more arrests at a particular prison means that drugs are a bigger problem or that the prison is more effective at detecting drugs being brought in.

A number of interesting facts stand out from the information supplied under the FOI:

  • 33 visitors were arrested at HMP Thameside – more than double the number at any other institution.
  • 25 prison staff were dismissed, excluded or convicted for trying to bring drugs into prison in 2013/14 – the same number as the previous two years combined.
  • The number of prisoners caught in possession of drugs has increased every year for the four years for which this information was provided, representing an increase of 46% over this period.
  • The six prisons who caught the most prisoners in possession of drugs are Forest Bank (154), Doncaster (100), Sudbury (88), Birmingham (73), Thameside (61) and Dovegate (58).
  • Four of these six prisons are privately run – Forest Bank by Sodexo, Doncaster and Dovegate by Serco, and Birmingham by G4S.

It will be interesting to see whether these figures go up or down next year.

Cuts in public expenditure have resulted in very well-publicised shortages of prison staff. It may well be that these figures fall in 2014/15 , not because there are less drugs getting into our prisons, but because there are less prison staff to detect them.



A new approach to smuggling drugs into prison was revealed in the Telegraph of 23 March 2015 which reported that a £750 drone carrying drugs had crashed into Bedford prison and was intercepted by prison staff.

I have heard about Mexican cartels using this approach to smuggle drugs over the US border, but this is the first reported incident in the UK. Please let me know if you hear of any more, they may not all make the press…


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5 Responses

  1. Hmp onley had three incidents of drones last year. In One the persons(s) flying the drone were caught in the car park. Another crash landed on the chapel/gym roof and staff waited for the recipient to go up and get it and caught him while in the act of retrieving the parcel.

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