In the year ending March 2018, there were 13,119 incidents of drugs being found in prisons in England and Wales: a figure which has tripled since 2010. A third of these cases involved new psychoactive substances (NPS), such as spice. Only 408 cases were the more serious Class A drugs including include cocaine and heroin. In her annual report published in October, the acting Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Elizabeth Moody, said the use of NPS was “completely out of control” in prisons because they were readily available.

Ten prisons have been identified by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as having acute problems with drug-fuelled violence. These are Hull, Humber, Isis, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Nottingham, Ranby, Wealstun and Wormwood Scrubs. In a bid to resolve this situation by the summer, several improvements are being implemented, including X-ray body scanners, the use of sniffer dogs, building repairs and better perimeter security.

Criminals are applying for jail jobs

There is growing evidence that members of organised criminal gangs are getting prison service jobs in order to bring drugs into jails. Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Jason Hogg, who leads on prison intelligence for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said he strongly suspects gangs are getting associates or family members jobs in the prison service with the intention of smuggling contraband in, although it was difficult to prove.

This was confirmed by Mark Fairhurst, National Chairman of the Prisoners Officers’ Association (POA), who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there was evidence of both prison officers and civilian staff being employed by criminal gangs around the UK. Although he said that these people accounted for less than 1% of prison staff.

Mr Fairhurst considers the use of X-ray body scanners as vital in the battle against drugs in prisons. HMP Leeds is the first to have one of these scanners installed to detect packages hidden inside a prisoner’s body. The scanner, which costs about £120,000, operates in a similar way to a standard hospital X-ray machine, but the level of radiation is 400 times lower.

Christmas cards carry more than goodwill messages

Although the X-ray scanner will be a game changer in the battle to stop drugs getting in to prisons, offenders are adept at finding other means. One of the latest smuggling methods is to spray post with drugs, particularly NPS including spice. The drug dissolves into the paper and is then smoked as a joint. Without an efficient method to drug test the paper products, prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales banned all Christmas cards with glitter, concealed panels, sticky bits, organic material and cloth.

Last year, prison governors introduced a policy of only providing inmates with photocopies of original letters as a precautionary measure, after it was revealed books and letters were being soaked with LSD-like hallucinogens.

“The safety of staff and prisoners is absolutely paramount. A number of prison governors have decided to intercept Christmas cards to prevent them being used to smuggle in dangerous psychoactive substances. Photocopies are usually provided to prisoners so that they still see the messages sent from their families and friends”, said an MoJ spokesman.

Drones deliver drugs

The government could introduce an anti-drone system to stop drug smuggling in prisons after a successful 6-month experiment in Guernsey. Called SkyFence, the system works by blocking radio signals around a prison whenever drones are detected.

The governor of Guernsey prison said it had worked superbly since it was installed in June at a cost of £120,000. Since it was launched, no drones had breached the prison’s perimeter and no devices had been damaged in the process. SkyFence has been activated on average 32 times per month, mainly after detecting drones being used for innocent purposes near the prison. However, it did pick up some suspicious activity, including a week in the summer when drones were detected at about 2am several days in a row.

Prison officers, governors and the Chief Inspector of Prisons have all expressed frustration at the failure of HM Prison Service to use technology to prevent drone smuggling fuelling the growing drug problem in jails. The extent of the problem was highlighted by the conviction in October of seven members of a gang who airlifted £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons.

“Why is the government not prepared to safeguard prisons from drones when the technology is available? Money should not come ahead of public safety”, said Glyn Travis, Assistant General Secretary of the POA. AlphaBiolabs can offer expert advice on drug testing solutions. Options include hair drug testing, oral fluid drug testing, urine drug testing or nail drug testing. For more information, please call on 0333 600 1300 or email us at