29 Jan 2015

Prisoners on Instagram reveal security crisis behind bars

News Correspondent

Highlighting a lack of security, UK prisoners are brazenly uploading pictures of drugs, cash and even a dangerous weapon on their illegal social media accounts, a Channel 4 News investigation finds.

Channel 4 News has uncovered a cache of pictures and videos posted to password protected social media sites by prisoners. The images obtained reveal contraband, violence, a weapon, piles of cash and alleged drug dealing.

Lock knife seen in a prison cell

One picture (above) shows a prisoner with a potentially lethal lock knife.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice revealed that serious assaults in prisons in England and Wales had reached a 10-year high. In the year to September 2014 there were 1,958 assaults including 431 against staff.

In 2013 the number of mobile phones retrieved by prison staff was 7,451 – despite the fact that prisoners found with smart phones can have up to two years added to their sentence.

According figures from the Ministry of Justice, the number of drug seizures in prisons has significantly increased. In the year to the end of March 2011, there were 3,700 drug seizures – this had risen to nearly 4,500 in 2013-14.

So why isn’t more being done to tackle the problem? Union leaders blame the cuts.

Instagram post apparently showing prisoner in cell with bags of drugs

Peter McFarlin, chairman of the prison officers association (POA), told Channel 4 News that security operations in UK prisons have become “impossible” due to lack of staff: “It’s extremely disheartening for professional prison staff, but they need resources to be able to combat that sort of activity.

“Since 2010, 7,500 frontline operational prison staff have left the service, 3,500 in one calendar year to 2014 – that means that targeted searching is not taking place, basic searching is not taking place, intelligence-led operations are going to be impossible to perform within the prison as they were in the past.”

Corrupt staff

While unions complain of a shortage of staff, Channel 4 News also heard that the wrong sort of staff were part of the problem.

A recently released former prisoner who blogs about criminal justice under the alias Alex Cavendish, identified prison officers and staff as the main way that contraband was getting in: “prisons are awash with drugs both legal (legal highs) and illegal. The main way that they come into prisons is through staff.

Drugs and cash

“The amount that prisoners or visitors can smuggle in is minute compared to the amount that is available on the prison wing.

“Corrupt staff play a role in this, whether uniformed staff or civilian staff such as people in education or maintenance.”

Channel 4 News also accessed still images and video of prisoners with cash: a breach of rules that ban prisoners from retaining physical currency.

Former prisoner-turned-blogger Alex Cavendish told Channel 4 News he had witnessed vulnerable officers being targeted to supply contraband by prisoners who blackmailed them using personal data they had uncovered via the internet.

When pressed on why he had never reported anything, he said prisoners who do are in a “vulnerable position”.

In 2006 a leaked prison service report estimated up to 1,000 corrupt staff may be involved in smuggling.

According to 2011 Ministry of Justice figures given to Channel 4 News, in the three preceeding years 92 prison staff had been dismissed, 78 convicted, and 167 staff who work for other agencies within the prison service had been excluded from such work.

In the light of the material uncovered by Channel 4 News the Ministry of Justice said: “Prisons already use a comprehensive range of robust searching and security measures to detect items of contraband with intelligence-led searches, body searches, use of X-ray machines, metal detectors and CCTV surveillance cameras, as well as body orifice scanners all helping to tackle the use of mobile phones.

“Any prisoner who is caught or suspected for smuggling prohibited items will face tough consequences, which could include prosecution and a further sentence, closed visits, up to 42 days added to their time in prison or confinement to their cell for up to 21 days with no association time.”