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Anti-Drone “No Fly Zones” Implemented to Combat Prison Smuggling

In a bid to clamp down on criminal gangs attempting to use drones to smuggle contraband such as phones, drugs, and weapons into prisons, the Ministry of Justice, in conjunction with The Rt Hon Edward Argar MP, has introduced stringent new restrictions that come into effect today, January 25, 2024.

The new legislation establishes a 400-meter “no-fly zone” around prisons and young offender institutions, making it an automatic offence to operate drones within this restricted area. Unlike the previous requirement for evidence of contraband smuggling, police can now take action merely based on drone operations near these facilities.

Drone operators caught violating these rules will face fines of up to £2,500. However, individuals found smuggling illicit items through drones, items that often contribute to violence and criminality within prisons could potentially face a maximum prison sentence of up to ten years.

This crackdown is prompted by a significant rise in drone sightings within prison grounds, with statistics revealing that the number of drones captured or spotted within prison premises more than doubled between 2019 and 2021.

The implementation of these virtual “no-fly zones” aims to increase the chances of apprehending organized criminals in the act, simplifying the process of prosecution, and conviction, and imposing lengthy jail terms. Additionally, these anti-drone measures will bolster security by preventing illegal aerial surveillance of prisons.

Prisons and Probation Minister Edward Argar expressed the government’s commitment to preventing contraband smuggling into prisons and staying one step ahead of organized criminal tactics. He highlighted that these anti-drone measures, combined with advanced security measures such as airport-style x-ray scanners and drug detection dogs, would target illicit items that contribute to violence behind bars.

Between 2019 and 2021, more than 500 drones were either sighted, intercepted, or seized around prisons in England and Wales. Since June 2016, law enforcement and prison staff have collaboratively secured over 70 convictions related to drone smuggling, resulting in a cumulative prison sentence of 240 years for those found guilty.

An illustrative example of this issue was the attempted illegal drone operation at HMP Risley in Cheshire, where an organized gang tried to smuggle Class A drugs, mobile phones, and SIM cards worth over £1.7 million into the prison. Their efforts included more than 20 drone flights over prison grounds from August to December 2020. Following a comprehensive joint operation by Cheshire Police and HMP Risley staff, the seven individuals involved were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.

The new legislation follows a significant £100 million investment in bolstering prison security measures. This investment has equipped 95 prisons with state-of-the-art trace detection equipment and provided 75 additional prisons with X-ray body scanners. Additional measures include the deployment of over 600 specially trained search dogs to thwart contraband smuggling and the recruitment of 160 extra counter-corruption personnel to root out any prison staff abusing the rules.

Exemptions from the “no-fly zone” may be considered upon request by submitting the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Airspace Regulation notification form. If approved, exemptions will be issued by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

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