Criminal gangs who fly drones into prisons to smuggle drugs to inmates have been warned “we will find you” after a specialist squad was formed to tackle the growing problem.
A team of police and prison officers has already started work to track down those who operate the drones from outside jails, with lengthy prison sentences awaiting anyone who is caught.
In the past two years advances in drone technology have been exploited by criminals to fly not only drugs but mobile phones, mobile chargers and SIM cards into prison yards where inmates are waiting for them.
The problem is particularly prevalent at older prisons, which tend to be sited in built-up areas where it is easier for drone operators to go undetected.
The Ministry of Justice has decided to act by releasing funds for the new “drone squad”, which will carry out forensic examinations on seized drones to track down those who operate them.
It comes just two weeks after a man was handed a record sentence of six years and six months for trying to fly drugs worth £48,000 into three prisons in the south.
A Ministry of Justice source said: “What we are saying to people who fly drones into prisons is that they will be caught and they will be spending a long time behind bars.”
As recently as 2013, there were no recorded incidents of drones being used in or around jails in England and Wales, and in 2014 there were only two examples. But by 2015 that number had mushroomed to 33, and in November ministers said there had been a "big increase" on that number in 2016.
Sam Gyimah, the Prisons Minister, said: “We are absolutely determined to tackle the illegal flow of drugs and mobile phones into our prisons and turn them into places of safety and reform.
"The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country.
"My message to those who involve themselves in this type of criminal activity is clear; we will find you and put you behind bars."
The Ministry of Justice would not divulge how many officers are working on the squad, or the precise nature of the forensic material that they expect to lead them to the operators.
The new plans do not include any measures to stop drones in flight, such as nets over prison exercise yards.
Last year the Metropolitan Police said it was considering using trained eagles to intercept drones, a method which is already being used in the Netherlands. However, the idea was shelved because of concerns over animal welfare.
Last month two men were jailed for a combined total of 11 years for criminal use of unmanned aerial vehicles after they tried to smuggle cannabis, spice, heroin and phones into prisons in Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Kent.
The new “drone squad” is part of a wider Government effort to clamp down on drugs and mobile phones in prisons. Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, has introduced mandatory drug testing and more than 300 drug detection dogs to detect psychoactive substances.
All prisons have also been equipped with portable and fixed mobile phone detectors.