Prison bosses are to trial a new technology to tackle the rising threat posed by drones smuggling drugs and weapons into prison.
Sources said the technology is “promising” but the Irish Prison Service is keeping the nature of it under wraps.
And, in a further bid to combat the drugs trade, the IPS is considering installing full body scanners at entrances to prisons, similar to those at Heathrow Airport.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association in Sligo, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he was “satisfied” that the new technology will be able to deter drones.
There have been six seizures of drones in prisons in the last 18 months, with another one by gardaí in April — but sources said this does not reflect the true scale of the problem, which they described as “significant” in certain prisons.
But the POA said they want specifics of IPS plans to deal with drones, which they said also place staff at risk when they have to try and retrieve contraband dropped into exercise yards occupied by prisoners.
POA general secretary John Clinton said they were promised technological solutions to deal with mobile phone use in prisons — including blocking technology — 14 years ago, but that it failed to materialise.
Caron McCaffrey, director general of the IPS, said they took the issue very seriously.
“We’ve recently been looking at different technological solutions available to us to deal with this issue and I’m glad to say we are close to introducing a new technology on a trial basis in one of our prisons to see if this can assist us with keeping contraband out of our prisons.”
“Staff from our operations directorate recently attended an international forum where we were looking at best practice and emerging technologies in relation to dealing with the issue of drones and other security threats to prisons.”
She said that from speaking to prison chiefs in other jurisdictions drones seemed to be a much bigger issue in Ireland.
Ms McCaffrey added: “We’re certainly anxious to trial the technology and if that is successful it is our intention to introduce it in a number of prisons.
“We don’t have a drone problem in all of our prisons, but there’s certainly a number of prisons where it is a significant issue.
"The intention is once we are satisfied the technology works we will roll it out to those prisons.”
Of the six seizures of drones in the last 18 months, five were in Wheatfield, west Dublin, and one in Limerick.
Last month, gardaí seized drones outside Castlerea Prison, Co Roscommon.
Ms McCaffrey said that while most exercise yards near perimeter walls have nets over them, other yards that are not near exterior walls do not.
“Obviously drones introduce a new threat in this area and we’re actively looking at other yards where we need to install additional security installations.”
Mr Flanagan said: “We are in contact with international experts and very soon will be in a position to launch on a pilot basis innovation that will deal with drones in a way I believe that will lead to a solution.
"I’m satisfied that we will have the technology that will be in a position to deter drones, which is totally unacceptable at present.”
Ms McCaffrey said they are also looking at high-tech body scanners at entrances to stop drug smuggling, saying they currently only have walk-through metal detectors.
“We’ve got security-style screening at the entrances to all our prisons at the moment and I’m certainly interested in looking at body scanners, akin to those you now find at our airports.
“If you go through Heathrow, they have body scanners you physically stand into, we don’t have those, but I’m aware other prison jurisdictions are trialling body scanners in their prisons and we’re watching that very closely.