Jails crackdown on drugs and phones

· Straw agrees to body scans in anti-smuggling move
· Random searches of staff 'should be stepped up'

New security devices, including hand-held mobile-phone blockers and metal- detecting chairs are to be introduced in prisons in England and Wales by March to crack down on the supply of illicit drugs into jails, it was announced yesterday.

To prevent drug smuggling, prisoners are to be issued with one-piece suits with no pockets, or close-fitting shirts and jeans that they can wear instead of tracksuits while in contact with visitors.

The moves follow a report published yesterday by David Blakey, the former chief constable of West Mercia, which found that the days were long gone when the smell of cannabis wafting through a prison on a Friday evening indicated a quiet weekend for the staff.

"Today, most types of drugs in prisons cause trouble. They affect behaviour, usually for the worst, and they increase bullying and assaults as drugs need to be paid for," he concluded.

Blakey confirmed that substantial amounts of all types of illicit drugs were readily available in prisons in England and Wales and conceded that smuggling by the staff themselves represented one of the five main routes by which drugs got into prisons.

The small minority of corrupt prison staff prepared to provide mobile phones to inmates at £250 to £800 a time, suggested that random and appropriately directed searches of staff should be stepped up, he said. In some prisons, he noted, there existed a target of only four rub-down searches of staff each year.

However, the former chief constable stopped short of recommending that drug testing be introduced for prison staff. He said that while that would be a significant step towards demonstrating integrity, its implementation would need much discussion and negotiation.

Blakey added that one of the most tried and tested smuggling routes for inmates -"over the wall" - was now aided by mobile phones in arranging location and time, and by online maps for providing detailed plans.

All of his recommendations over hand-held mobile phone blockers in jails have been accepted by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, who has also agreed with body-orifice security scanners - Boss chairs - being introduced to all English and Welsh jails by next year. This equipment will be used to detect and block use of mobile phones by dealers inside.

The Blakey report says an astonishing number of mobile phones are circulating within prisons, with more than 600 phones and SIM cards seized every month. "Phones get into prisons in the same ways as drugs do and as they get smaller they are hidden in the same places. They are recharged in a variety of ingenious ways," Blakey says.

The Boss chairs are plastic armchairs that detect metal or plastic in body orifices, and will be given to all prisons at a total cost of £2m. Comprehensive blocking technology to stop the use of all mobile phones within prisons has not been possible so far. The main problems are the technology, which blocks all mobile phone use in neighbouring areas, and the expense - a multi-million outlay to cover all 139 prisons.


Alan Travis, home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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