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Drones spied on illegal phones to help police smash prison crime ring

Drones helped smash a ring of organised crime bosses running their empires from jail by spying on smuggled phones and drugs.

Regional organised crime squads and police chiefs used the drones to target a surge in illegal phones and drugs being thrown over the walls of a jail with one of the highest concentrations of organised crime group offenders in Britain.

Crime bosses had turned to the “throw-over” tactic because of shortages of illegal burner phones due to the ban on family visits and cell lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid.

They use the phones and Wi-Fi routers to run gangland enterprises from prison as well as selling them at inflated prices to other offenders, who are then blackmailed into working for the crime group.

The bust at Forest Bank prison, in Manchester, was one of the biggest police operations of its kind amid concern within the National Crime Agency (NCA) at the way crime bosses are able to continue to run their empires from prison.

Operation Dragonfire saw officers from the Regional Organised Crime Squad, Greater Manchester Police and the Prison Service use the drones and covert surveillance to identify criminals throwing the phones over and their gangster recipients.

Cells of specified organised crime group bosses were searched with dozens of phones, Wi-Fi routers and sim cards, seized along with steroids and other electronic contraband.All contacts on the seized phones are being traced to face police questioning over their links to the crime bosses in the jail.

Detective Chief Inspector Chris Mossop said: “The suspension of social visits due to the Covid pandemic is believed to be linked to an increase in the number of phone throw-overs, which has become a prevalent issue in prisons.

“If offenders have unlimited access to unmonitored phones, they are able to continue managing organised crime and co-ordinate further criminal activity both in and outside the prison.

“Furthermore, once inside phones can be sold to a captive audience at a higher rate than in the community, making vulnerable prisoners and their families subject to exploitation and safeguarding risks.

“A lot of work has gone into this operation, and the volume of contraband recovered shows how successful the targeted cell searches have been in addition to the success of patrols and packages that were intercepted.”

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