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In recent years there have been plenty of headlines highlighting the use of drones to smuggle drugs and other contraband into prisons.

And that’s fair enough. It’s a new, interesting challenge for authorities to deal with. And fear gets clicks.

Last year in the UK, for example, police monitored and apprehended an organized crime gang responsible for using drones to smuggle £1.2m worth of drugs, weapons and mobile phones into prisons across the country.

As of December 2017, 17 people had been found guilty of using drones to get contraband into prisons in the UK. Last week, 5 more were convicted.

And many such cases have been reported in the US, Canada, and Australia – to name a few.

So yes, the problem is a real one. It’s also one that is difficult to stop without having expensive, sophisticated systems in place. Not to mention the staff capable of using them.

uk prison statistics illegal drone smuggling

The coverage, however, appears to be out of proportion and lacking in context. Many of the stories outlining this relatively new phenomenon seem to indicate that drones are the sole issue here, that without this new technology our prisons would be a better place: the beacons of reform and rehabilitation they are supposed to be.

In reality things are very different. Drones are providing a convenient scapegoat in the short term. The evidence suggests that fundamental changes are required by prison authorities to tackle contraband, not just anti-drone technology.

Read more: Media Coverage in the Drone Industry: Perspective Needed

Drones are a convenient scapegoat for rampant smuggling economy

We all have suspicions that prisons in the UK, the United States and elsewhere tend to be underfunded, understaffed, and rife with corruption. To an extent, the huge demand for contraband is a symptom of those wider problems.

An investigation carried out by UK publication the Observer – using Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice – confirms that. It found that hundreds of prison officers have been sacked for smuggling drugs, weapons and mobile phones into UK jails in recent years.

In fact, the number of staff found taking contraband into prisons in England and Wales has risen by 57% in the past six years. 341 members of prison staff have been dismissed, excluded, convicted or cautioned by police. In 2017 alone, there were 71 cases of staff smuggling compared with 45 in 2012.

The Ministry of Justice data showed that it’s not just prison officers smuggling items into prisons. It’s also health workers, trainers, and other support staff – anyone who stands to make money from a black market thought to be worth £100m per year is doing exactly that.

Drugs were found 13,119 times in prisons in England and Wales last year. That’s the equivalent of more than 35 incidents per day and a 300% rise on the amount found in 2014.

And those are just the incidents prison staff caught and documented.

Perhaps the most damning finding relating to UK prisons came in July, when a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons discovered that London’s Wandsworth prison – the most overcrowded in Britain – had stopped using CCTV cameras and x-ray body scanners on inmate visitors to detect contraband.

The reason?: “A lack of staff”.

What does all of this mean for the drone industry?

There is no doubt that the smuggling of items into prisons using drones is a serious problem. However, it’s clear that many of the headlines miss the underlying issues completely, and that contraband and corruption will persist unless those are addressed.

On both sides of the Atlantic, public opinion swayed by media hysteria is being used to justify stricter drone regulations. More often than not, these are going to impact negatively upon enthusiasts and people whose livelihoods depend upon the technology.

Unsurprisingly, the UK Prison Service says that corruption figures reflect the actions of a tiny minority.

It’s a shame that same grace isn’t granted to drone pilots and the wider drone industry, who will continue to be held back as the actions of a handful tarnish them all with a negative brush.

Malek Murison is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for tech trends and innovation. He handles product reviews, major releases and keeps an eye on the enthusiast market for DroneLife.
Email Malek
Twitter:@malekmurison

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