aerial view of a prison

This case study was featured at our previous Tackling Gangs and County Lines Conference. Kelly Gray, Detective Inspector, Eastern Region Special Operations Unit and Melanie Barr, Head of Analysis, National County Lines Coordination Centre, Metropolitan Police, addressed the pressing issue of tech exploitation within prisons. Highlighting the rise in exploitation, gang activities, and violence, they dispelled the common belief that incarceration reduces vulnerability. Instead, exploitation in prisons often mirrors that in the outside community, particularly following the county lines model.

Discover our latest Tackling Gangs Conference here.

County Lines in Prisons: A Growing Concern

The county lines model, known for its network of drug trafficking and exploitation, has found its way into prisons, exacerbating violence and fostering the formation of new gangs. Many inmates, especially those involved in serious crimes such as knife offences, are deeply entangled in county lines operations. Within the prison walls, contraband items like drugs (notably spice) and mobile phones become highly valuable commodities, with spice paper fetching around £400 and phones up to £4,000. This environment allows inmates to continue their criminal activities, adapting the county lines business model to the prison setting.

hands with hashish joint and bag with cannabis. Drug trafficking in prison Drug consumption and sale concept


There are estimated to be 6700 County Line Nominals within the HMPS footprint. Indicators of county-line activity include:

  • Unlikely to perceive themselves as a victim.
  • Self-harm and self-isolation.
  • Physical injuries.
  • Expressions around invincibility or not caring.
  • Change in behaviour: Increasingly disruptive, hostile, or physically aggressive behaviour.
  • Found with large quantities of drugs or weapons.
  • Noticeable personal respect shown by other inmates.
  • New friendships.
  • Other people taking the blame for incidents and adjudications.
  • Well-stocked canteen and frequent cell visits.
  • Unexplained amounts of money, phones, credit, clothing, jewellery.
  • Unexplained absences from work.
  • Multiple visits by the same person or non-associates.
  • Multiple mobile phones, sim cards, frequent number changes.

Efforts to Combat County Lines in Prisons

Addressing these challenges requires enhanced intelligence and collaboration between prisons and law enforcement. Typical County Line maps cannot be drawn geographically due to prisoners being relocated for example, HMP Parc in Wales carries many County Lines Offenders, many of which are relocated from London and the South East, due to bad behaviour. A key focus is on identifying and managing county lines offenders and understanding the nexus between prison violence and external criminal networks. By improving intelligence cycles and utilising telecom data, authorities aim to disrupt these criminal networks and safeguard vulnerable individuals.

Strategies and Initiatives

A comprehensive approach to tackling county lines within prisons involves better identification, information sharing, and risk management. This includes a monthly working group that facilitates collaboration among forces to address issues affecting both the prison environment and the broader community. The emphasis is on multi-agency cooperation, engaging local authorities and probation services to prevent re-offending.

Case Study from Suffolk Police Constabulary

An incident captured on CCTV involved a package thrown over a prison fence by a 15-year-old boy. After police were alerted, the boy escaped in a car with a 32-year-old driver, who was later arrested for human trafficking offences and assisting the child. The 15-year-old was arrested for conveyance of a listed article into prison and was found to be the brother of a serving prisoner. The investigation uncovered significant evidence, including mobile phones and a knuckle duster, in the getaway vehicle. This implicated the serving prisoner and his partner in orchestrating drug smuggling operations involving children (breaching section two of the Modern Slavery Act). The prisoner’s partner was later arrested at a prison visit.

This case underscored the importance of early engagement and robust relationships between law enforcement, prisons, and child services. It also marked a shift towards treating involved children as victims of human trafficking, rather than criminals, with suggestions for using slavery, trafficking, and prevention orders to mitigate risks.


The persistence of county lines issues within prisons and the wider community calls for continued multi-agency efforts. By improving coordination, intelligence sharing, and risk management, authorities aim to disrupt criminal networks and protect vulnerable individuals, ultimately reducing the impact of county lines exploitation in and out of prison.

Discover our latest Tackling Gangs Conference here.

flashing blue police lights

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This case study highlights the rise in exploitation, gang activities, and violence in UK prisons. It dispels the common belief that incarceration reduces vulnerability.

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