Surge in level of drugs and phones smuggled into Irish jails, say prison officers

Antidrone technology purchased to block deliveries to prisoners does not work and is outdated, annual conference is told

There has been an exponential increase in drugs, mobile phones and other contraband seized in Irish prisons at a time when new technology to block illegal deliveries to prisoners via drones has failed, prison officers have said.

Karl Dalton, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), said interceptor drones that would block incoming drones carrying drugs and phones into prison yards, “were purchased but never used” by the Irish Prison Service.

“We have also learned that the antidrone technology doesn’t work and that the technology already purchased is outdated,” he added, yet the market was “awash” with technology that could block drones.

“Those responsible for failing to deliver a fully functioning drone technology should be held responsible,” he said.


Speaking at the annual conference of the POA, which represents 3,300 prison officers across the Republic’s 12 jails, Mr Dalton said drug seizures in prisons had increased by 160 per cent since 2015 while mobile phone seizures had increased by just over 200 per cent. At the same time, the number of people arrested for smuggling these items into jails had fallen by half.

He gave the example of Wheatfield Prison, Dublin, where he said the number of mobile phones seized reached 1,374 last year, compared to 35 in 2015. Similarly, in Cloverhill Prison, Dublin, drug seizures had reached 410 per year, compared to 104 in 2015.

“During 2023 our members seized 1,272 mobile phones, 1,294 drug packs and 308 weapons, which were being smuggled into our prisons. As a follow-up to these seizures 66 people were arrested.”

Mr Dalton added the increase in contraband in prisons was a safety issue, especially at a time when overcrowding was worsening, because it led to intimidation and violence inside the prison walls.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the Government was once again examining a very large site of hundreds of acres at Thornton Hall, north Co Dublin, as a possible new location for a very large prison there.

That potential project – on the site purchased for the Irish Prison Service two decades ago but never used – was now being reviewed, though she had no time frame for that process.

“Capacity is an issue, space is an issue, there’s no denying that,” Ms McEntee said of the prison population now having passed 4,900 and expected to reached 5,000 for the first time very soon.

“That’s why I secured €50 million in additional funding this year. That’s for four new developments across four different prison estates. Two of those are ready to go. That’s on top of the two prisons that have been built in recent years, Cork and Limerick.”

Some 150 additional prison spaces would be provided this year, with 670 over the next few years, she said.

Speaking at the POA conference, Ms McEntee said at least 80 per cent of the prisoner population had some form of addiction issue, meaning it was a cohort that would go to very “lengthy” measures to get drugs into jail. This included prisoners working with people outside of jails to fly drones over prison campuses and drop drugs and other contraband into prison yards.

While netting had been erected over yards to catch the parcels, some of those nets had collapsed during recent bad weather. However, work was being done to repair the netting and any nets that remained damaged would soon be repaired, the Minister said.

Ms McEntee added prisoners were being trained to retrofit houses, which was a job those interested in turning their lives around could pursue on release. Asked if homeowners would be told ex-convicts were working in their houses retrofitting them, Ms McEntee said many prisoners who showed a willingness to reform had rejoined the jobs market.

In some of those positions they were required to disclose their criminal record, but society also needed to give former prisoners the chance to find employment after their sentences were served, Ms McEntee said.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times