‘Serious organised crime is seriously well organised in prison’
One of the greatest myths surrounding prisons is that those incarcerated are incapacitated: in other words, if you are locked up you cannot commit crime. It is a comfort blanket for politicians.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no offences committed in the community that have not been committed in prison. Murder, rape, robbery, drug trafficking, all occur behind bars. Some offences will originate from within the custodial environment. One prisoner may murder or rape another because of a conflict or an opportunity emanating from the environment itself. Prisoners steal from each other and threaten others to carry out criminal acts to exploit situations they find themselves in.
But prisons are porous institutions and there are many positive reasons why they should be. Prisoners are members of the community passing through; all but a handful will be released. Physical and mental health, drug and alcohol treatment should be continuous between prison and the outside.
The theory is easier than the practice. The transfer of responsibility for health in prison to the NHS in 2003 was a positive step forward but the many NHS reorganisations since have not helped. Nor has the continuing disconnect between prisons and the community.
This porous quality should also apply to education, training and employment. There should be links between prisons, local colleges and employers. Unfortunately a commissioning landscape emphasising large contracts with national providers compounded by the debacle of Community Rehabilitation Companies has militated against such relationships.
But while the porosity of the positive remains an intractable problem, the porosity of the nefarious is an insidious plague we are ignoring.
Serious organised crime is seriously well organised in prison. HMCIP Peter Clark gets it and has commented on it; as an ex-cop he would (here). There are many cases where serious organised criminals have been exposed for running their business in prison and I have personally worked on a number of cases as a former head of the prison service’s Corruption Prevention Unit.
Robert Talbot ran a car ringing operation using corrupt police and prison staff, all from his prison cell (here). Gareth Curtis ran a drugs empire using illicit mobile phones from within a high security prison (here). Cases such as these are being replicated more often in the current crisis and exposed far less.
The symptoms lie in the increased number of mobile phones found in prisons and the epidemic of illicit drugs. Figures vary on the number of phones found in prison annually, some put it at between 15-20,000. If we are optimistic and hope that at least one in four are found, then almost every prisoner in the country has access to a mobile phone. Drug use is less well quantified. HMPPS dos not publish the type and quantity of the drugs it finds nor where they find them. There is no analysis of the methods of trafficking with drones being a useful distraction away from the real issues.
Trafficking is at the very heart of the business of organised crime and it is a highly lucrative business. We can only speculate at the millions being made while ignoring who is paying the price. There are those coerced into drug use, those whom treatment has failed and those acquiring a habit under the care of the State.
And there are those outside literally paying the price of our failure to provide a protective environment for those at risk. A prisoner locked in his cell 22 hours a day or the more fortunate one earning £8 a week cleaning the wing are contributing nothing. Families outside struggling with life and an absent breadwinner are being more and more exploited as the trade flourishes inside. They are either forced to smuggle contraband in themselves and risk substantial prison sentences or deal externally with corrupt staff and organised criminals. Once trapped there is no way out. Reprisals over debt face the prisoners inside, financial ruin and exploitation destroy innocent lives on the outside. This is a porous prison system at its worst.
We are reassured that policies are being put in place to disrupt the flow of contraband with an emphasis on drone technology, body scanners, sniffer dogs and drug testing. It is meaningless rhetoric that at best will push up prices. There is an acknowledgement that better intelligences systems are needed: stand by for another expensive failed computer system.
We need a change in mind set. While it is essential to catch those who have been corrupted we need greater emphasis on the corruptors, the serious organised criminals who don’t take drugs, aren’t violent to staff, are intelligent and articulate and who offer reassurance to staff with their exemplary behaviour: in short the arch conditioners and manipulators who will do their utmost to prevent a prison riot because it will disrupt business.
Good, experienced staff know who they are as do many police forces and the National Crime Agency. The police have tools at their disposal not least in the form of Serious Crime Prevention Orders, a powerful and effective tool underused in prison. Deploying such measures requires a police and prison service working in harmony. At one time senior police officers were seconded to prison service HQ to help co-ordinate policy and tactics. They were summarily removed many years ago when they exposed the inconvenient truth of prison staff corruption. There remains a disconnect and mistrust and while some prison governors will know and work with their Borough Commanders I suspect most have neither met them nor been encouraged to do so by a defensive and insular prison service.
New prisons minister Rory Stewart has talked of culture change in the prison service so too has HMCIP Peter Clark albeit without referring to this issue specifically. Rory Stewart has also talked about getting back to basics. A prison service working in close harmony with the police service to tackle serious organised crime in prison is as basic as it gets.