ODSecurity2015-10-13 09:55:05

Cell phones, the prison scourge

The recent case in Wales of Paul Williams who ran a huge drug operation using cell phones from his prison cell, once again highlights the issue of cell phones in prison. Williams was using up to six different phones, making up to nearly 300 calls a day from his cell to a list of 60 phone numbers belonging to suppliers, distributors and users, keeping his drugs empire running smoothly.

Cell phones are one of the most sought after contraband items in prison and one of the biggest security problems facing prison authorities worldwide. With illegal phones being used to organise crime, inside and outside prison, intimidate witnesses and even organise the murder of witnesses.

Phones are smuggled in using a variety of methods, they are hidden in clothing of visitors, legal documents and books, hidden in shoes and body cavities, thrown over prison walls to be picked up later, and sadly, smuggled in by corrupt prison officers. In Georgia USA, at least 15 Department of Corrections employees were arrested for bringing phones onto department grounds in 2013 and 2014.

UAV's have been used to fly mobiles into prison and in once case in a Brazilian prison a cat was caught smuggling four cell phones and four sim cards. Of course the cat denied smuggling and refused to disclose his owner or the recipient, so no charges were brought.

In the UK in 2013, more than 7,400 handsets were confiscated from prisoners, who are prohibited from using mobile phones and other communication technology.

Georgia, the USA's fourth-largest state prison system, last year confiscated more than 13,500 phones, about one for every five prisoners.

Prison authorities worldwide have looked at a variety of technologies to combat smuggling and use of cell phones with varying degrees of success.

Jamming mobile phone signals in prisons has proved unsuccessful and is indeed illegal in the US as it interferes with local public phone signals, jams emergency calls and first responder communications. Also, jammers will not block satellite phone signals which will be the obvious alternative for ever resourceful prisoners even if GSM signals were blocked.

Call capture is a technology with potential to reduce use of cell phones, whilst ensuring that public and emergency service communications are not interrupted.

The technology does not block the signals but acts as a base station for all mobile signals channelling and monitoring them. It allows and passes through all authorized calls, and rejects unauthorized calls. At its first trial in the correctional facility in Parchman, Mississippi, this technology stopped 216,000 illegal calls made by and to inmates in just one month.

However, this technology will only work effectively at isolated correctional facilities as it will still cause problems for passing and local mobile traffic in urban areas.

Dogs have been successfully trained to sniff out the materials used in the manufacture of cell phones but the dogs themselves are expensive to train and maintain and so too are the handlers. They can only work effectively for limited times and may also cause offences to some ethnic groups.

The reality is that whatever the authorities do inmates will adapt and find ways circumvent the security measures, especially when large amounts of cash can be made by utilising phones to continue criminal activity.

As is the case with most security issues, a layered approach is the most effective, utilising a range of procedures and technologies that keep the smugglers off guard and avoid predictable routines.

Technologies like metal detectors which are already in use and through body X-ray scanners are an essential part of any part of any security regime.

Metal detectors are cheap and easy to use but they have recognised limits. They can detect the relatively small amounts of metal used in cell phones but when set on the high sensitivity can cause many false alarms. They may also miss these small amounts of metal inside body cavities, nor can they pick up non metallic substances.

Low dosage through body x-ray scanners are beginning to be adopted in correctional facilities and detention centres around the world. They have a number of advantages; they will detect any object concealed by an individual, whether metallic or non metallic, hidden in the clothing or in a body cavity. This means that not only can they be used to find mobile phones and sim cards but also for drugs (the other major related problem in prisons) weapons or any other form of contraband.

They can be used either routinely, randomly or for spot checks to scan inmates, visitors, prison ancillary staff, contractors and prison officers. This in itself acts as a deterrent.

Jan Steven van Wingerden, Managing Director of ODSecurity, manufacturer of the Soter RS low dosage through body scanner said "Our scanners are widely in use in correctional facilities around the world, and we have had lots of feedback from operators who are routinely detecting a wide range of contraband, from drugs to phones. But another important consideration is the human rights issue. Scanners like ours offer a humane alternative to degrading strip searches, which were once the only option when a visitor, inmate or member of staff was suspected of smuggling, which is why Amnesty International supported the use of the scanners we supplied to detention centres for illegal immigrants in Netherlands"

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