Over recent months there has been much in the national press about things getting out of control in prisons. This has included, in one instance, the running of a prison having to be taken out of private hands and given back to the government.
There has been much speculation as to the causes – could it be under-funding, loss of experienced staff, overcrowding or a lack of focus on rehabilitation? Whatever the answer, what is said to have contributed to the problems and made a bad situation worse is the supply within prison of contraband – particularly mobile phones and drugs. Supply of drugs would, of course, be a crime in the community, so it is probably not surprising that it is a crime in prison too. However, under the Prison Act a range of items are banned, from drugs and weapons, through alcohol and mobile phones to tobacco and tools. Each type of item falls into a specific category or list, with different maximum punishments depending on seriousness.
Mobile phones can be used by prisoners to continue organising their offending whilst in prison. Drugs are in the top category, or “list A”. When these cases are before the court, the prosecution will remind the sentencing judge of the problems that the availability of drugs are causing within the prison system. It is said that the availability of drugs leads to violence, indebtedness and further criminality. As a result, when people are caught taking these items into prison immediate prison sentences are almost invariably being handed down.
I have recently dealt with two cases, however, in which the defendant was not sent to prison, when we were able to explain to the court that the particular circumstances warranted an exceptional approach to be taken. Both were warned, however, that these cases were the exception that proves the rule – and anyone facing these sorts of offences ought to be aware of the likely consequences.