How criminal gangs are profiting from prisons - and what’s being done to stop it

15 November 2021, 08:07 | Updated: 15 November 2021, 12:25

By Charlotte Lynch

Criminal gangs have been making millions from within prison cells - able to sell heroin and spice on the outside world using mobile phones no bigger than a domino piece.

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LBC discovered that dealers have been profiting from the exploitation of the prison remand system. They’ve been paying convicts released on license as much as £1,000 a pop to commit a crime and get sent back to jail, so they can smuggle drugs, weapons and miniature mobile phones back inside with them.

Prison officers aren’t allowed to look inside of inmates bodies, so they have been able to swallow or secrete deadly substances that go undetected. They then wreak havoc inside of jails, with some inmates overdosing, leaving officers with no choice but to call out ambulances that could be used elsewhere.

The Prison Officers Association had been asking the government for X-ray body scanners to detect illegal contraband, and they have now been installed in every closed men’s jail in England and Wales. In just over a year, they have stopped more than 10,000 attempts to smuggle in dangerous and life-threatening substances.

The scanners are so effective in disrupting organised crime gangs (OCGs) that a bounty has been placed on them by dealers, who governors believe will pay £10,000 to anybody who can damage the machine enough to take it out of action.

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LBC was granted access to HMP Lincoln to see one of the scanners in action. Already, hundreds of inmates there have been caught trying to get drugs, tobacco, and other illegal items in to the prison. Our reporter Charlotte Lynch was also shown a tiny mobile phone the size of a typical index finger, which drug dealers can use to operate a criminal enterprise from within their cell, and intimidate witnesses in trails on the outside world.

Paul Cawkwell, Prison Group Director for the East Midlands, showed our reporter Charlotte Lynch a doggy bag which contained the drug spice - the size of a two pound coin. It had been found on a prisoner using the scanner. He described it as a "cancer" within jails.

He said: "It’s an extreme high, in some cases it causes hallucinations. In some cases it will cause extreme behaviour, people to pass out and require hospitalisation, and it can cause death.

"That will go a long way. It trades at a very high price. Whilst it looks small - the impact it will have is grossly disproportionate."

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In January, more than 1 in 10 inmates who were scanned were found to have illegal contraband on them. Last month, it was down to 1%. Mr Cawkwell said it shows: "You can’t beat this technology. Don’t try and evade it - if you’re confronted with it you will lose."

Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins said: "What happens in prison can have many repercussions beyond the walls. I’d much rather ambulances were going to members of the public and my constituents, rather than having to come to HMP Lincoln because somebody swallowed a condom full of heroin or a Class A drug.

"It’s much better that we detect this as soon as they come in to the prison, because that helps to protect the public beyond the prison walls."

Figures obtained by LBC show at least 12,500 ambulances and paramedic cars were sent to prisons in England in 2019 and 2020. More than 200 of those were because of an overdose or a stabbing. Most recent data shows that every ambulance call-out, which resulted in a patient being taken to hospital, cost NHS England £292 in 2019/20.

When asked if the Ministry of Justice had acted too late, Ms Atkins said: "This is part of an ongoing programme of investment - this has been rolled out across all male prisons in the country and we are investing in enhanced gate security in 42 of our highest risk areas. We will continue to rebut whatever the criminals throw at us."