Seizures of contraband, including mobile phones and drugs, increased significantly across the Irish Prison Service last year.
And the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said on Friday those controlling the supply routes wielded great power in the prisons as a result.
Last year 872 mobile phones were found in jails and drugs were seized on 1,018 occasions.
The number of phones seized was the highest since 2012 and was 35 per cent higher than in 2016.
Similarly, the number of drug seizures made was the highest since 2013 and represented a 42 increase on 2016.
The closing session of the POA annual conference in Kilkenny heard that if leading criminals can source mobile phones they can continue to direct their crime gangs from prison.
Their violence and intimidation extended to targeting the families of other prisoners they were in conflict with while serving their sentences.
POA deputy general secretary Jim Mitchell said it was difficult to say whether the increase in seizures of contraband resulted from more of it coming into the prisons or his members and the Garda being more successful in detecting the smuggling.
“We think it’s probably a bit of both,” he said. “The phones are the big item for a lot of these prisoners – phones are massive currency.
“When they have one, that’s them being able to continue their business on the outside.”
Mr Mitchell added when senior criminals made it known in prison they wanted a phone or drugs, more vulnerable prisoners were often intimidated into carrying out the smuggling.
This often took the form of the families of those prisoners on the outside being pressured by criminals to smuggle in phones and drugs for their gang leaders in the jails.
“And if those more vulnerable prisoners don’t comply, then their families are in trouble on the outside and they’re in trouble on the inside.”
The intimidation was often intense because the “group that controls the [smuggling] routes have the power in what is a savage market economy in prisons”. Mr Mitchell added that search teams introduced a decade ago to look for contraband were still operating.
Those “operational support groups” followed up intelligence about smuggling routes and worked very closely with the Garda to detect drugs and phones at the point of entry.
Visitors and staff working at the jails were also subjected to searches and sniffer-dog checks when entering prisoners, as well as airport-style scanning and metal detector checks.
However, the increase in contraband confirms smuggling of contraband remains a big problem. And it was one that had to be kept under close examination. The jails were much more difficult to manage because of the violence and pressure that went along with smuggling contraband.
Director general of the Irish Prison Service Michael Donnellan said the detection of contraband remained a priority. He said the service had phased out “attack dogs” – which helped keep order in the prisons – four years ago in favour of investing more heavily in tackling contraband smuggling.
In response to queries, the Irish Prison Service said nets had been erected over prison yards to prevent contraband being thrown over walls and CCTV systems had been enhanced across the prison system, including at entry points and in visiting areas.
“Nevertheless, the Irish Prison Service recognises that constant improvements are required in this area,” it said.