in Aerospace / Security

New anti-drone restrictions to combat prison smuggling

Posted 25 January 2024

Criminal gangs who try to fly phones, drugs and weapons into prisons using drones face finding themselves there instead under tough new restrictions coming into force today.

Above: New 400 metre drone ‘no-fly zones’ around prisons come into force today.
Courtesy Ministry of Justice

The new law makes it an automatic offence simply to fly drones within 400 metres of prisons and young offender institutions. Previously, police could only act where there was evidence of contraband being smuggled.  

Drone operators who break the rules will be fined up to £2,500 while those smuggling illicit items which drive violence and criminality in custody may face up to a decade behind bars.  

The crackdown comes as figures reveal that the number of drones captured or sighted within prison grounds has more than doubled between 2019 and 2021.

The virtual ‘no-fly zones’ will increase the likelihood of police catching organised criminals in the act – making it easier to bring prosecutions, convictions and lengthy jail terms. These new anti-drone measures will also enhance security by preventing illegal aerial filming of prisons.

Prisons and Probation Minister Edward Argar said: "We are working harder than ever to prevent the smuggling of contraband into our prisons and this is the latest step to keep ahead of the tactics exploited by organised criminals.   

"These new anti-drone measures – along with our advanced airport-style x-ray security and drug detection dogs – will crackdown on those illicit items that fuel violence behind bars."

Over 500 drones were either sighted, intercepted or seized around prisons in England and Wales between 2019 and 2021. Since June 2016, police and prison staff have worked collaboratively to make over 70 drone-related convictions amassing a total of 240 years behind bars for those who broke the law.   

One attempted illegal drone operation at HMP Risley in Cheshire saw an organised gang try and smuggle in Class A drugs, mobile phones and SIM cards worth upwards of £1.7million in prison. This group undertook more than 20 drone flights above prison grounds between August and December 2020. Following an extensive joint operation between Cheshire Police and staff at HMP Risley, the seven individuals involved were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.  

The new law follows a £100 million investment in bolstered prison security measures which has seen 95 prisons equipped with next-generation trace detection equipment and 75 additional prisons equipped with X-ray body scanners.

Other measures include:   

  • The deployment of more than 600 specially trained search dogs to help crack down on attempts to smuggle illicit contraband behind bars.  
  • The recruitment of 160 additional counter-corruption personnel to help root out the dangerous few prison staff who abuse our rules.

Requests to operate inside these Restricted Areas can be made by submitting the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Airspace Regulation notification form. Exemptions, if approved, will then be issued by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).


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