Anti-drone technology could be introduced in English prisons
Prisons and probation Anti-drone technology could be introduced in English prisons
Government U-turn likely after successful trial of signal blocking system in Guernsey
The government could introduce an anti-drone system to stop drug smuggling in English prisons after a successful six-month experiment in Guernsey prompted ministers to consider a U-turn about the technology.
Prison governors and officers and the chief inspector of prisons have expressed frustration at the failure of HM Prison Service to use technology to prevent drone smuggling fuelling the growing drug problem in jails.
Ministers had been resisting implementing the system on cost grounds, but on Tuesday, the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, told MPs officials were considering rolling out the scheme.
“We are looking at an electronic fencing technique which has been deployed in Guernsey,” he said. “If that electronic fence in Guernsey works, it is a good cheap solution. We need to check out its technical specifications and then we could look at rolling it out.”
Last month, HM Prison Service downplayed the success of the technology. A spokesman said: “While there are some advantages to this technology, it doesn’t help us to catch criminals attempting to smuggle contraband into prisons or intercept illegal drugs and mobile phones.”
SkyFence blocks radio signals around a prison whenever drones are detected.
The governor of Guernsey prison said it had worked “superbly” since it was installed in June. Dave Matthews told the Guardian that since the system was launched on 14 June, no drones had breached the prison’s perimeter and no devices had been damaged in the process.
“We put this up because we saw what was happening in the UK and we knew it was only a matter of time before Guernsey became victim to deliveries by drones,” he said. “The system has just stopped the problem happening.”
The initial reluctance to adopt the system dismayed prison staff who claimed the government was more concerned about saving money than making prisons safe.
Glyn Travis, the assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said: “Why is the government not prepared to safeguard prions from drones when the technology is available? Money should not come ahead of public safety.”
Matthews said SkyFence was installed for £120,000, but that this did not reflect the true cost because the company involved, Drone Defence, was willing to make a loss on the system in the hope that, once installed, it would help secure future commissions.
Mitch Albutt, the national officer at the Prison Governors Association, said: “You would think that if you have a good system that greatly reduces supply, then it would be implemented, especially at that price.”
The problem of drone smuggling was highlighted by the conviction in October of seven members of a gang who airlifted £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons.
In his annual report, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, said the ready availability of drugs in prisons contributed to an alarming rise in violence.
He criticised the Prison Service for being too slow to introduce technology that deterred drugs from being brought into jails. “We have seen examples of how effective this technology can be, but so far it is only being used in a very few locations,” he wrote.
One of Clarke’s predecessors, David Ramsbotham, said every prison should install a Guernsey-style drone fence to make prison “safer and more orderly”.
Under the 2012 Prison Act, prisons can block mobile phone signals. The authorities in Guernsey amended this legislation to include drones.
SkyFence has been activated on average 32 times per month, mainly after detecting drones being used for innocent purposes near the prison. However it has picked up some suspicious activity, including a week in the summer when drones were detected at about 2am several days in a row.
The government is understood to be anxious to avoid potentially costly legal fees if property is damaged or people are hurt by drones intercepted around prisons. Matthews said SkyFence only blocked signals rather than knocking drones to the ground. Once the signal was lost all drones had inbuilt homing systems that returned them to their operator.
Elliott Cockett, who runs a business in Guernsey called Drone Ranger, tested the system by trying to breach the perimeter, but he failed. “I was amazed it worked so well,” he said. “It doesn’t tamper with the drone, it just blocks the communication between the remote and the drone.”
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