Thursday, May 11, 2017

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Sam Gyimah: Droning On

Alex Cavendish writing in Prison UK: An Insider's View, pours scorn on UK Prisons Minister, Sam Gyimah.


Sam Gyimah: Prison Minister

It seems our dysfunctional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) never learns the truth of the old saying that when you have already dug yourself a very deep hole, it’s best to stop digging. This week it’s hapless Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah who is the star of the clown show.

The issue of drones being used to courier drugs, mobile phones and other contraband into our out-of-control prisons has already been the cause of much mirth following the excruciating faux pas by Justice Secretary Liz Truss in the House of Commons back in December. In the aftermath of the merciless mockery she has endured in both the national news and on social media in response to her bizarre comments about barking dogs deterring drones, you might be forgiven for imagining that she would never want to hear mention of the subject again. Not so, apparently. Now Mr Gyimah (who very obviously barely suppressed his own urge to laugh out loud at his boss in the Commons) is in on the act. He proclaimed.

We are absolutely determined to tackle the illegal flow of drugs and mobile phones into our prisons and turn them into places of safety and reform. The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country.

Call for the Flying Squad
As anyone who knows anything about prisons and the problems posed by the smuggling of contraband will confirm, remote controlled drones represent a very, very small part of a much bigger security crisis across our prison estate. Virtually every report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) confirms what is already well known: jails in England and Wales are awash with drugs and mobile phones. And the vast bulk of this contraband is not being flown in on flimsy little drones that cost less than £100 in Argos.

Nevertheless, the MOJ – always anxious to be seen to be ‘doing something’ – has just announced the launch of a ‘national initiative’ that will see prison authorities pool intelligence about drones with the police. An astonishing £3 million is likely to be earmarked to set up this new task force, while the much bigger issue of how the vast majority of contraband consignments actually get into our chaotic prisons remains largely ignored.

Contraband this way...
I have written previously about the highly controversial subject of corruption among prison staff (uniformed and civilian) – see here – and recent prosecutions of corrupt staffers confirm that their pivotal role in what has become an incredibly lucrative business cannot simply be ignored. HMPS employees have a degree of access to prisons that outsiders can only dream about.

Time and again I’ve had it confirmed by long-serving members of the prison staff that there is often little or no searching of staff by security officers. As one remarked to me recently, “I’ve worked in prisons for over eight years and I have personally NEVER been searched going into my workplace.”

This means that unless a corrupt individual is extremely unlucky, the risk of being caught red-handed is likely to be incredibly small. It’s my suspicion that those staffers who do get apprehended with holdalls full of drugs, mobile phones and SIM cards have already been the subject of tip-offs in the run up to their arrest.

Not likely to be 'plugged'
However, the relatively small number of HMPS employees who are caught, prosecuted, and often jailed for their crimes, cannot account for the vast expansion in the availability of illicit mobile phones inside our prisons. Last year alone, MOJ figures state that over 20,000 mobile phones and SIMs were seized by officers, an incredible amount, and up nearly 20 percent on the number of seizures made in 2015 (that year it was nearly 17,000 handsets and SIMs). Back in 2014, the total was just 9,745. Someone, somewhere is making enormous profits from this vast criminal enterprise since even basic phone handsets are changing hands inside for up to £600.

Moreover, not all of these phones are tiny so-called ‘BOSS-buster’ handsets that can be concealed inside bodily orifices and beat the BOSS chairs that are supposed to scan for illicit electronic contraband in jails. As is evident from mobile footage being shot in prisons and then posted on social media, many prisoners are in possession of full size smart phones, including iPhones.


Busted by BOSS?
I defy anyone of normal human physique to ‘plug’ an iPhone 6 without requiring subsequent surgical intervention. Such items are also not being chucked over prison walls or landed by drones. Someone with authorised access is walking these phones through the gate and making a substantial profit on the deal.

Of course, not all contraband is smuggled into prisons by bent staff members. There are plenty of alternative routes as was shown at HMP Northumberland in 2015 when quantities of Class A drugs were discovered concealed inside old mattresses being brought into the prison as part of a recycling operation. It is true that drones are also being used, although the current numbers of incidents is certainly not sufficient to justify spending £3 million of taxpayers’ money on a specialist unit, rather than tackling contraband smuggling as a whole.


Sam Gyimah: trying not to laugh
Unfortunately, the MOJ is currently in the grip of a PR meltdown. Fellow cabinet ministers are busy briefing against the hapless Liz Truss and she has become a figure of fun in the national media. Even the Daily Mail hasn’t been able to resist having a pop at the ridiculous comments that so often just seem to slip out of her mouth. In a desperate effort to regain a shred of credibility, the embattled Secretary of State has now approved the launch of what is likely to become known as the Anti-Flying Squad.

In reality, this public money would be far better spent on developing an effective national anti-corruption unit that would do serious intelligence work to combat the pernicious spread of drugs and phones throughout the prison estate. Highly mobile security teams should be deployed without notice at jails to search anyone coming into prisons, including governor grades, focusing first on those prisons where HMIP have identified serious problems. Such an initiative would cost money, but at least it wouldn’t be wasted on a Keystone Cop-style pursuit of a few dozen drones. It might also tackle the tsunami of crime and corruption that is drowning our prisons in drugs, contraband, bullying, debt and violence.

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