The ringleader of a gang who smuggled drugs and phones into prisons using drones has been jailed for seven years and two months.
Former armed robber Craig Hickinbottom, 35, organised the flights from behind bars, Birmingham Crown Court was told.
His gang put prohibited items worth an estimated £1m into jails as far apart as the West Midlands and Scotland.
The packages were attached to fishing lines and flown over prison walls. Nine others were also sentenced.
The group were convicted of organising 49 drone flights, although police believe the actual number may be higher.
They were also found guilty of four “throw-overs” – with one of the gang, Craig Hickinbottom’s brother spotted on CCTV with an improvised hook, ready to collect the goods from inside prison.
Weapons and a Freeview box
The gang were caught by chance, by cameras set up to film wildlife outside HMP Hewell in Worcestershire.
Footage shows two of the men in a field, preparing a drone for flight, before sending it over the hedge to the prison grounds.
Inside, the packages – some of which were specifically ordered – were retrieved by inmates.
Prison CCTV showed others visiting their cells and walking out with packages.
As well as drugs and phones, the gang smuggled in weapons, screwdrivers, sim cards, and a Freeview box with remote control.
Drone pilot Mervyn Foster, 36, of Tipton, West Midlands, was jailed for six years and eight months for his part in the plot. He was said to be the gang’s prime organiser on the outside.
Hickinbotton was serving a sentence at HMP Featherstone in Staffordshire, and later Hewell, while organising the deliveries.
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The offences, which were committed between July 2015 and May this year, also took place at jails in Birmingham, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Liverpool, and Perth.
Both Hickinbottom and Foster pleaded guilty to conspiring to bring prohibited items into prison, and conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances.
Craig Hickinbottom’s 50-year-old brother, John, was jailed for four years and eight month, while his “right-hand man” John Quinn, 35, was sentenced to four years and eight months. They admitted the same charges, as well as conspiring to throw an article into prison.
His 32-year-old partner, Lisa Hodgetts, from Tividale, West Midlands, admitted money laundering and was given a 16-month suspended prison term.
Passing sentence, Judge Roderick Henderson said: “Prisons are difficult enough places to run – they contain people who are dangerous and vulnerable.
“Supplying things into prison that should not be there – drugs, phones, tools and the like – threatens proper management… and creates real risks of violence and loss of control and discipline”.
Gareth Sands, governor at HMP Hewell, said the drones were a “gamechanger” that “literally came from nowhere”.
The gang were able to breach the perimeters “almost effortlessly”, he said, adding that procedures had been tightened up in the wake of the case.
Four other men were sentenced after pleading guilty:
- Francis Ward, 46, of Walsall, was jailed for two years and four months for conspiring to bring prohibited items into prison, and conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances
- Sanjay Patel, 38, of Telford, was jailed for five years and three months for possessing an electronic communication device whilst in custody
- Ashley Rollinson, 23, of Brierley Hill, West Midlands, was jailed for 11 months for conspiring to bring prohibited articles into prison
- Terry Leach, 19, of Tipton, West Midlands, was given a two year suspended prison sentence for conspiring to bring prohibited articles into prison.
Yvonne Hay, 41, of Walsall, was jailed for two years and four months after being convicted of conspiring to bring prohibited items into prison, and conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances.
Source: BBC Here