Pubdate: Sun, 8 August 1999
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
Author: Tony Thompson, Crime Correspondent


When customs officers raided a pounds 20 million booze and cigarette
smuggling ring in Essex last year, they immediately noticed something
familiar about the operation.

The size of the shipments, the professionalism of those involved and the
sophisticated techniques they had employed to avoid detection all bore the
hallmarks of Ellis 'Tony' Martin, a key figure in a notorious East Anglian
bootlegging gang known as the 'A-Team'.

But Martin had the perfect alibi: he was serving a seven-year sentence for
conspiracy to smuggle cannabis and had been locked up in Weyland prison in
Norfolk for more than three years before the latest find.

According to detectives close to the case, however, increasing numbers of
top players in the criminal underworld are learning that they can continue
to run their empires from within their prison cells. One police officer who
has spent years tracking the activities of major criminals in the capital
and beyond told The Observer: "When it comes to the major names in organised
crime, as long as they have money and a couple of trusted lieutenants on the
outside, we are finding that they are able to continue running their
business almost as well as before. With the access to communications that
you get in prison, it's not at all difficult. If anything, it's easier
because their lieutenants always know where to find them."

Last week, Martin was found guilty of evading millions of pounds worth of
duty. With the help of a corrupt solicitor and dishonest prison guards, he
had made more than pounds 500,000 a week from the comfort of his cell. He
reportedly used the prison payphone from eight in the morning until eight at
night while running his empire, bribing guards to obtain extra phonecards.

In just 15 months, more than pounds 23 million passed through just one of
his many bank accounts and several of his henchmen also became millionaires.

Customs officers working on the case say it is not an isolated example.
Although all phone calls made from high security prisons are supposed to be
monitored, at least on a random basis, this is often not possible because of
staff shortages.

And even where calls are being recorded, most villains are adept at dealing
with this by using sophisticated verbal codes.

New codes are agreed during personal visits and changed regularly to avoid
detection. And while prisons restrict the number of phone cards a prisoner
is allowed to have at any one time, there is a flourishing black market
which sees pounds 2 phonecards changing hands for up to pounds 50 each.

Home Office officials are currently considering proposals to greatly
restrict or even ban access to phones for all inmates following increasing
numbers of complaints from police and customs officers that witnesses in
forth coming cases allege they have received threatening phone calls from
the prisoners they are to give evidence against.

However, many believe that even removing payphones from prisons will do
little to solve the problem. Last month three prison officers were suspended
from Brixton prison, south London, after allegations that they had taken
cash and other bribes from inmates in return for smuggling in mobile phones.

Last November, a mobile phone was discovered in Ireland's high-security
Portlaoise jail outside the cell of a man accused of murder, while a month
earlier, prison officers at Mountjoy prison in Dublin found a mobile phone
after a search of a prisoner's cell. The search was ordered after a witness
in a forthcoming trial received a call from the prisoner in the early hours
of the morning.

Among those suspected of continuing to play an active role in criminal
activity while behind bars are some of Britain's most notorious villains.

Sean 'Tommy' Adams of the notorious north London criminal family, jailed for
seven years for his part in a multi-million pound cannabis smuggling
operation late last year, is still believed to be controlling much of his
empire from his cell.

So too is the 27-year-old Essex gangland boss, Jason Vella, who was jailed
for 17 years in 1996 for assault, drugs offences and false imprisonment.

Both Adams and Vella are flourishing despite being held in high security jails.

In open prisons, where regimes are generally softer, prisoners are allowed
more luxuries and phone calls and mail are not monitored, leaving them wide
open to abuse. It was while he was serving a sentence at the notorious Ford
open prison that former London nightclub owner Roy Garner set up a pounds
100 million cocaine deal. Garner also bribed prison guard Kenneth Colquhoun
to bring him smoked salmon, champagne, jellied eels and vodka.

A former inmate of Hollesley Bay open prison in Suffolk said the prison was
so lax it was dubbed 'Holiday Bay' and inmates would regularly use a local
taxi firm to pick up orders of Chinese food and crates of lager and deliver
them to the perimeter fence where they would be sneaked into cells.

According to the inmate, many of the prisoners continued to commit crime
while serving their sentences.

"It was common practice. There was no need for them to get their hands dirty
they could just use their money and their contacts to set up deals and then
wait for the profits to come in.

"There were no checks to stop it happening. One bloke was in for computer
fraud and they let him keep his laptop with him. The whole time he was
there, he was taking orders over the phone and arranging deliveries. It was

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