Criminal gangs 'using drones to deliver legal highs to prisons'

Drugs can be delivered almost to the window of a cell with the aid of GPS technology

Attempts by criminal gangs to tap into the market for so-called “legal highs” within prisons has resulted in a surge in the use of drones to deliver drugs to inmates, according to new figures released under freedom of information laws.

Prisons in England and Wales reported 26 attempts to deliver drugs, mobile phones and potentially other illicit material during the first 10 months of 2015, but insiders claim that intelligence reports suggest the real number is eight times higher.

The growing sophistication of the high street-bought unmanned drones has meant that drugs can be delivered almost to the window of a cell with the aid of GPS technology, on board cameras and minimal training, according to experts. A drone costing less than £1,000 is capable of carrying a payload of 1.5kg.

There were nine confirmed reports of drone activity at eight prisons in October 2015 alone, including a sighting at the top-category Full Sutton prison in North Yorkshire, which is home to some of the country’s most dangerous criminals.

Drugs were also found when a drone was recovered at The Mount, a prison in Hertfordshire which runs a specialist recovery programme for addicts. The most incursions recorded were four over the year at Onley prison in Warwickshire, a category-C prison that prepares men for release.

The figures appear to include a previously reported case of a drone being used to fly into Bedford prison carrying mobile phones and drugs. It became entangled in barbed wire after it was believed to have been destabilised by its cargo. Another drone was found after crashing into fencing at Liverpool prison in August.

The 26 cases in prisons in England and Wales for 2015 – an increase from two recorded for the whole of 2014 – included seizures of drugs and mobile phones. In some cases the cargo was not specified or unknown.

Organised criminal gangs are known to have become involved in the prison drugs trade where profit margins are much higher than they are outside the walls. A mobile phone that would cost £27 on Amazon would sell for £400 inside, it is understood.

The figures released by the Ministry of Justice represented only confirmed incidents. It did not include suspected cases included in internally distributed intelligence reports which puts the figure much higher.

“It’s not too far in the realms of dreamland. You can almost deliver to a window of the cell if it opens, because they all have cameras,” a source told The Independent.

“It’s an actual threat. There have been in excess of 200 drone attacks on prisons this year. Drugs are one thing, but it could be other things being flown in, like weapons.”

The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, warned earlier this month that ministers were acting too slowly to combat the threat from legal highs.