The recent spate of media reports on drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons in the UK has again focussed a negative light on drones and how they are used. In instances such as the smuggling of contraband it may be argued that although drones are the conduit being used for such nefarious purposes, the real central underlying issue is the serious drug problems faced by prison authorities. Despite this however, the central focus of most media reports are the use of drones. A significant recent example of this can be seen with the report into the death of Acacia Smith in London, who was killed when the car she was travelling in crashed whilst it was being followed by police who had been alerted to a drone being possibly flown near Wandsworth Prison. The Independent’s headline for their story was, ‘London woman dies in possibly the first drone-related accidental death.’ Whilst the official investigation is still ongoing, the police have said that they followed a car seen leaving the area when they arrived which was subsequently involved in a high speed collision. It may be asked how this can be said to be a drone related death? The drone itself seems to have played no direct part in the death of Acacia Smith, as it appears that the crash is likely to have resulted from the occupants not wishing to be apprehended following attempts to deliver contraband into the prison, but for the Independent the drone is the central focus of their report.
The first UK conviction for delivering and conspiring to deliver contraband into a prison via a drone, came in July this year when Daniel Kelly received a 14 month prison sentence, after admitting the charges following data being obtained from a SIM card taken from a drone found in his car showed he had made eight flights to six different prisons. It is important to understand however that the offences for which Kelly pleaded guilty were not specifically drone related under the applicable legislation, rather under the Prison Act 1952 as amended by the Offender Management Act 2007, they concerned the smuggling of illicit contraband into prisons however it may have been undertaken.
The latest official figures for drugs being found in prisons in England and Wales show that in 2014 there were 5973 such incidents, the highest number on record. Drones have clearly offered a new and effective way for contraband to be smuggled into prisons, and official figures show that from there being no known incidents of drone prison smuggling in 2013, in 2015 there were 33 identified incidents.
With the growing number of instances of drones being used to transport contraband into prisons, the Metropolitan Police in London recently undertook a 3 day exercise code-named Operation Airborne, which focussed on preventing drones being used around Pentonville prison in London. Whilst no individuals were apprehended during the Operation, it did lead to two drones being recovered. One of the two drones was found after it had crashed and the other due to the weight of the contraband it was carrying flew so low that a police officer was actually able to grab hold of it. At least one of the two drones has been reported as being a DJI Phantom 4, which are currently retailing for around a £1000.
Worryingly for prison authorities and the police clearly criminals see it as potentially cost effective to use such expensive machines, which points to the scale of the problems regarding drugs and other contraband such as mobile phones faced by the authorities.
The need to be able to identify those who are flying drones is clear, but in the case of those wishing to furtively transport contraband into prisons they are of course unlikely to acquiesce in any form of identification mechanism that is introduced by the regulatory authorities, although it can be envisaged that any technical identification included within the machine itself may make anonymization more challenging.
Drone technology has opened up an effective mechanism by which contraband may be smuggled into prisons and this must obviously be addressed, but the central issue for the authorities remains the demand led factors for specific types of contraband that are prevalent throughout the prison system in this country, and the current focus of the media on drones used to transport contraband fails to provide the necessary appropriately balanced and informative coverage of this central issue.