The Stark Reality of Phones in Prisons

The HM Prison and Probation Service in the UK has just published their long-awaited report into what drives the demand for illicit mobile phones by prisoners, with the hope to potentially identify effective ways of preventing their use.  

The results of this report starkly highlight the differing views of the Security Staff within the prisons and that of the prisoners themselves and emphasises the need to strictly control the access of phones into the UK prisons.

The report was conducted in Spring/Summer of 2014 and consisted of a survey of all prison establishments across England and Wales, semi-structured interviews with 20 Heads of Security and 67 prisoners across 20 prisons, a review of literature on the use of illicit mobile phones in prison, and a small-scale limited content analysis of material found on confiscated mobile phones.

Heads of security cited that “the trafficking of illicit mobile phones as one of the major risks they faced in maintaining prison discipline and providing a decent and secure environment” and that “Mobile phones were seen by both the security function and prisoners as a major component of the illicit prison economy, with mobile phones acting as a key facilitator of drug dealing and use within establishments. “

The report found that although a variety of mobile phones were being used within establishments, the smaller, easier to conceal phones seemed to be the most sought-after models, as smart phones with greater functionality were at a greater risk of detection and confiscation.

Prisoners themselves commented that mobile phones were a feature of prison life and economy, regardless of type of prison, although they did comment on the fact that higher security prisons were harder to traffic phones into.

Although, nine out of ten prisons surveyed agreed that illicit mobile phones were used for drug dealing within the prison and Heads of Security said that illicit phones were being used by organised criminals to continue to run criminal business from inside the prison, and that they also created instability and exposed vulnerable prisoners and their families to bullying, exploitation and extortion. The    flip side is that they were also being used by other lower profile prisoners simply to keep in contact with partners and family. Prisoners themselves also agreed that “the presence of mobile phones in prisons also worked to moderate the potential for violent confrontation between prisoners” and that given the situation where prisoners were “increasingly locked up for extended periods, access to mobile phones acted to defuse the resulting tension and resentment, which might otherwise lead to confrontation with staff.”

The report detailed that “both mobile phones and in-cell phones enabled prisoners to sustain richer and more meaningful relationships with family members and that those able to maintain effective relationships with family and friends were better able to cope with their sentence, more realistic about resettlement and more motivated on desistance.”

A range of different methods are being used in establishments to search for illicit mobile phones and SIM cards. At the time of the research, physical searching was one of the most commonly cited methods to aid detection of illicit mobile phones.

However, the view from the Heads of Security was that mobile phones were not about to go away any time soon this was echoed by prisoners who opined that both the economic and human drivers of the demand for mobile cell phones means that it would not be possible to stop mobile phones entering UK prisons in significant numbers. And that “the demand for phones were so strong that there would continue to be a constant flow of mobile phones into prison, even as prisons became more effective in preventing entry.”

So, the stark realities remain that to aid Prisoners rehabilitation and to lower recidivism rates it is important to ensure prisoners have access to mobile phones, but on the flip side, if prisoners have mobile phones then they can continue with the very crimes that they are currently in prison for. It is almost a chicken and egg situation.

This report coincided nicely with an announcement by the UK Justice Secretary, David Gauke as he launched a fresh crackdown on crime in Prisons.

A £30 million prison improvement package which includes a £7million investment in safety. This will fund a range of new security measures, including airport-security style scanners, improved searching techniques and phone-blocking technology together with £7m on in-cell telephones for more prisons. Currently most prisoners queue for public phones on the landings, which can be the trigger for violence or fuel demand for illicit mobile phones. Some UK modern prisons have in-cell phones with strict security measures, meaning calls to family can take place in private.

If the new measures are to work, and prisoners who need private access to a phone network, then the illicit mobile phones making their way into UK prisons needs to be stopped, and one system that is currently operational in prisons in over 30 countries is the SOTER RS Body Scanner.

The SOTER RS Body Scanner is an ultra-low radiation full body scanner which can find contraband that has been hidden on a person, and more frequently, in, a person.

Jan Steven Van Wingerden, CEO of ODSecurity, manufacturers of the SOTER RS Body Scanner said, “One of the strengths of our system is that regardless of how small an item is, and whether it has been ingested or inserted, the SOTER will find it. We pride ourselves on our products ability to find items that cannot be detected by conventional metal detectors or strip searches.  It is important when searching for contraband that you can differentiate between human and other materials, to limit false positives, and wasted time. SOTER RS comes with its own software, and any hidden object, regardless of what material it is made from is found within 10 seconds!”

He continued, “SOTER has had terrific success in many prisons and correctional facilities the world over. Of course, due to the nature of the establishment, figures however can rarely be published. A report from Canada on our equipment can be read here;