Mobile phone seizures behind bars in Hindley Prison have rocketed by more than 10,000 per cent over the past few years, according to shock new figures.
Staff at the Bickershaw jail were routinely recovering only a handful of illicit mobiles and SIM cards back between 2010 and 2012.
But in 2017 alone 418 items were impounded by prison officers at Hindley, an investigation has found.
The percentage rise for the Gibson Street prison is easily the highest in the country - and for the number of discoveries per 100 convicts Hindley is ranked third.
Prison service bosses insist the figures show that contraband is being successfully found and confiscated within the system.
But penal reformers claim if pay phones for inmates were more affordable - and ensured a degree of privacy - the market for smuggling mobiles could be smashed.
Earlier this month the prisons’ watchdog also flagged up that limited chances to leave their cells were restricting opportunities for inmates to call their families on public phones.
The Prisons Inspectorate also identified several failings in the “physical security” of the Hindley complex, which Chief Inspector Peter Green believed made it much easier to smuggle illegal items into the jail.
Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has outlined a series of measures designed to combat contraband, including tackling drone deliveries, preventing drugs and mobiles being thrown over walls by deploying nets and photocopying correspondence.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “These statistics show that we are successfully stopping contraband from entering the prison estate.
“Better intelligence and improved security measures are allowing us to catch more illicit items than ever before.”
Prison officials have acknowledged though that more could be done - and pinpointed a £2m investment in detection equipment as being a key tool.
Around 300 specialist prison dogs have also been enlisted to reduce smuggling and work has been ongoing to block mobile phones in jails, they say, as well as an additional 3,111 prison officers having swelled staffing levels since 2016.
New portable equipment to detect phone signals has also been trialled in the likes of Preston, Garth and Wymott prisons.
But Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, claims the figures are a symptom of a prisons system “in meltdown”. But she thinks the trade in illicit mobiles is actually helping to keep inmates “calm and safe”.
Mrs Crook said: “Tens of thousands of smuggled mobile phones have been found in prisons in the last few years. Prisons are awash with them. As fast as staff find the phones, more are smuggled in.
“Perhaps if we dealt with the reason that prisoners are so keen to get hold of phones, we might be able to control the trade.
“Prisoners are permitted to use phones on the landings, in full view and hearing of everyone milling about. The phones, which are operated using a special PIN, resemble the old-fashioned street pay phones with a small hood. So there is no privacy to call your loved ones.
“Prisoners have to pay the national rate for phone calls.”
She has also criticised the “limited access” to such phones and called for an overhaul of the allowances scheme employed by many prisons.
While she accepts some inmates might use mobiles to carry on their criminal activities, she says some simply want to keep in touch with their families on the outside.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, added: “Knowing how many phones are seized is an important part of the story, but what’s unclear is how many of the calls made on illegal mobiles in prisons are by people trying to stay in touch with their families.
“When a person can spend their entire week’s prison wage in just 30 minutes on a prison phone, and has one hour a day when they can join the queue to do so, it’s not surprising that the demand for illicit handsets is high.
“So prison officers continue with a needle in a haystack search for illegal phones that are being used by the drug barons rather than the lonely sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.”He is also concerned that trials of an in-cell telecoms initiative have been abandoned by the Prison Service, as this could curb the need for illicit phones.