Prison officers powerless to stop drones

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Prison officers are standing by and can do nothing as high-tech drones routinely drop drugs and weapons into British jails, a senior prison officer said.

The drones simply hover in mid-air outside cell windows and prisoners grab the illegal drugs as prison staff watch on CCTV.
The shocking revelation comes from a senior prison officer and is further evidence Britain has lost control of its jails – now branded “the most violent places in Europe.”

Prison officers are fully aware drugs and weapons are being shipped in by drones but say they simply do not have the manpower,
firepower or support to step in and do anything about it.

Mark Fairhurst, Chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, said his members are now having to work in conditions that are “not safe” and due to cuts they have to simply watch while prisoners are handed drugs via drones from people on the outside. The prison chief claimed officers lack the necessary equipment to appropriately defend themselves in the event of a violent outbreak.

He said: “It’s not safe. It’s certainly the most violent place in Europe. We haven’t got the protective measures in place to equip our staff. For example, what we have in the majority of prisons is an extendable baton.

‘We’ve tried to badger the Government to issue Pava and although they’re trialling it in prisons there’s no decision been made yet on whether they will roll it out nationally. But we are not taking no for an answer when it comes to Pava. It’s a good protective measure and it de-escalates violence, so we’re going to insist that Pava is rolled out.”

Pava is an incapacitant spray that was trialled in four prisons in 2017 to help officers avoid serious injury in scuffles with inmates. The liquid spray contains a chemical that mimics the heat effect of chilli peppers. Symptoms subside in 45 minutes, giving prison officers plenty of time to call for reinforcements to come to the rescue.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in July showed self-harm incidents and assaults in jails were at record levels, while the discovery of illegal drugs and banned mobile phones increased by 23 percent and 15 percent respectively in the year to March. The MoJ report showed an increase of 26 percent in assaults on prison officers in the last year – with 9000 assaults recorded – and an 11 percent increase of prisoners harming themselves.

An MoJ report attributed the increase of violence on the amount of new psychoactive substances making it into prisons. But Mr Fairhurst dismissed the claims drugs are the only thing to blame for the increase of violence.

Leading prison officers claimed overcrowding caused by relentless austerity measures implemented by UK governments since 2010 is the primary reason violence in prisons continues to rise. The MoJ report showed 56 percent of prisons in the UK are overcrowded. Mr Fairhurst said: “We’ve been saying for years to the Government you need to reduce overcrowding.

‘And they had a perfect opportunity to do so at the new super prison in Wrexham, HMP Berwyn which can hold over 2100 prisoners. They had an opportunity there to make those cells single cells, but unfortunately now 70 percent of those cells are housing two prisoners when they could have made every cell a single cell. And they’ve closed over 20 prisons since 2010.

‘So if you’re serious about overcrowding as a Government, you’d keep every prison open, open new ones and reduce that overcrowding over time. But they’re obviously not serious or not bothered about overcrowding. It certainly adds to prisoners’ frustration and levels of violence.”

The POA leader added: “We’ve always had drugs in prisons for decades. It used to be cannabis and cocaine, then it was the synthetic drugs, the psychoactive substances.
‘They’ve always been around. The main reason for the violence is the severe cuts we faced since 2010.

‘We’ve lost over 7000 frontline prisoner posts and there is a correlation between the lack of staff on the line to supervise and monitor prisoners and the rise in violence.
‘So this blame lies at the door of the Government through their austerity model of cutting too much and too fast and losing a lot of experience.”

Mr Fairhurst accepted, however, that new psychoactive drugs have indeed been playing a part in the increase of violent outbreaks in prisons.

The POA Chair explained prisoners continue to come up with a number of “ingenious ways” to smuggle and hand out drugs behind bars. But once again, he condemned the Government’s cuts for the lack of resources given to prison officers to tackle the issue.

He said: “What usually happens is a drone will hover above a cell window and the prisoner can simply put his hand out at that open window and secrete the drugs.

‘When prison officers see this happening on camera, nine times out of ten there are not enough of them to enter that cell to search the cell and try to get those drugs back. We simply haven’t got the resources to do it.”

Last month, Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, said he would resign if the number of assaults does not fall in ten jails that are to be subjected to a fresh crackdown on drugs and violence.

Mr Stewart, who has been prisons minister since January, announced a £10 million package of measures designed to lift standards at the ten jails selected, which have “acute” problems.

He said: “I will quit if I haven’t succeeded in 12 months in reducing the level of drugs and violence in those prisons.

‘I want to make a measurable difference. That’s what this investment is around. I believe in the prison service, I believe in our prison officers. I believe that this can be turned around and I want you to judge me on those results and I will resign if I don’t succeed.”

He said: “I’d expect to be judged on assaults. At the moment we’re measuring every month how many times a prisoner assaults another prisoner or a prisoner assaults a prison officer and in these ten prisons, in particular, violence is a real problem.

‘The fundamental thing I’d like to do and be judged on over the next 12 months is reducing that violence, reducing the number of assaults.”

Mr Stewart agreed the fall would have to be in the region of 10 percent to 25 percent in order for him to stay in his job.

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