A technological solution to the issue of drones being used to smuggle contraband into Irish prisons will be tested shortly, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said.
The Minister said he is confident that there are technological to counter drones.
The issue was highlighted at the annual conference of the Prison Officers Association (POA) on Thursday where delegates heard that in just one week last March, 50 packages, some containing drugs, were either thrown into or conveyed by drones into Wheatfield Prison.
The Minister said he was very concerned at the advances in technology which were providing new methods of bringing contraband into prisons.
“I am looking for solutions. I am confident that there are solutions out there,” he said. “Very soon we will be in a position to launch on a pilot basis innovations to deal with drones in a way that I believe will lead to a solution”.
Caron McCaffrey, director general of the Irish Prison Service, said there had been six drone seizures in Irish prisons, including five in Wheatfield and one at Limerick prison. A recent seizure in Castlerea was outside the prison walls.
POA general secretary John Clinton called for nets to be put over the exercise yards because of the difficulties posed for prison staff forced to retrieve the packages while surrounded by a lot of prisoners.
He said the association wanted to hear from the Minister what solutions were being planned “because we heard of technological solutions to mobile phones by using phone blockers going back 14 years, and it never happened”.
The union leader said prisoners who were not involved in drug smuggling were being victimised as often they were restricted from having outdoor recreation after such incidents.
The conference heard inmates are being forced to sleep on mattresses on floors because of overcrowding.
POA president Tony Power said last year overcrowding had once more become an issue, with the prison population up from 3,745 in April 2017 to 4,049 in April 2019.
The Minister said he accepted that overcrowding was an issue and he was keen to deal with it. He said increased Garda numbers, leading to more crime detection, was a factor.
Ms McCaffrey said three of the 12 Irish prisons were operating over capacity, but numbers were below capacity in the other nine.
In the short term, unused accommodation was being adapted to deal with the problem, she said. An audit was being conducted to identify cells capable of holding two prisoners where only one was now accommodated; this had the potential to add another 100 spaces.
A new wing being built at Limerick Prison, and a new standalone women’s prison in Munster, would create additional capacity in the medium term, she added.