Criminal kingpins to be targeted in prisons crackdown

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Prisoners with gang links could be transferred into higher-security jails under plans to choke off the influence of criminal kingpins behind bars.

Justice Secretary David Gauke is weighing up a major change to rules underpinning decisions on where inmates are held as part of a drive to stem the flow of drugs, mobile phones and other contraband into the prison estate.

Currently prisoners are assigned security categories according to their sentence length and escape risk.

Those at the highest levels are held in establishments or wings with more restrictive regimes.

Inmates can be moved during their sentence if their categorisation is raised or downgraded.

If adopted, the move would be a “critical tool” in helping cut off kingpins from directing illegal activity both inside and outside prison, officials said.

Authorities estimate there are approximately 6,500 offenders in prison in total associated with organised crime – roughly equivalent to one in every 13 inmates.

In his first major speech on prisons since his appointment in January, Mr Gauke will warn new technologies have “empowered” smuggling gangs to be more “sophisticated and brazen” in their methods.

He will describe how criminals have used drones to fly contraband to specific cell windows and even coated children’s paintings in psychoactive substances.

Mr Gauke will say: “From the conventional to the cunning, by design or device, through fear or intimidation, these criminal gangs will stop at nothing to maintain their access to such a lucrative market.

“We are taking action to bolster our defences at the prison gate and going after the organised criminal gangs.

“I want them to know that as a result of the action we are taking, they have no place to hide.

“Through our covert and intelligence-led operations, we will track them down.”

He will pledge to remove the influence of gangs from prisons so they can become “places of hope not despair”.

The power wielded by criminal groups in prisons has come under the spotlight as much of the estate has been hit by surging levels of violence and instability.

In one case, drones were used to smuggle items including mobile phones and drugs with an estimated value of up to £1.2 million into jails across the country.

And last month an inspection report on HMP Lindholme – a category C facility in South Yorkshire – warned that inmates with gang connections are determined to carry on “plying their trade”.

The availability of drugs in prisons, in particular substances previously known as legal highs, has repeatedly been highlighted as assaults and self-harm increased to record levels.

Mobile phones are also seen as a major challenge amid concerns they are used to facilitate more crime and intimidate victims from behind bars.

In 2016, prison staff seized 225kg of illicit drugs, 13,000 mobile phones and 7,000 SIM cards.

As well as the security categorisation review, a new unit has been set up to identify organised criminal gangs in prisons as part of a £14 million investment.

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