Tackling illicit mobiles in prisons by embracing technology

Tackling illicit mobiles in prisons by embracing technology

Andy Gent, CEO of Revector, highlights the security threats posed by the illicit use of mobile phones in prisons, and explains how new technologies should be embraced to counteract their use.

The use of illicit mobile phones has been a longstanding problem within UK prisons, with the Ministry of Justice identifying the risk posed by contraband mobile phone technology as one of the most significant threats to the security of the estate. Mobile phones enable prisoners to carry out criminal and terrorist activity while incarcerated, as well as facilitating intimidation of other prisoners or witnesses outside the prison environment.

Almost daily, prisoners are using illegal mobile phones to facilitate a wide range of criminal activity including drug supply, large scale fraud, harassment of witnesses and other prisoners, the procurement of firearms and maintaining and enhancing the influence of prisoners convicted of terrorism offences. In 2015, for instance, a drug dealer orchestrated a fatal revenge attack behind bars from a phone in his prison cell.

A growing issue

Prisoners without access to in-cell phones often queue in the communal areas to use the public phones to contact loved ones, which can act as a trigger for violence and fuel demand for illicit mobile phones. In an attempt to reduce violence and improve rehabilitation rates, the Ministry of Justice provided almost 400 extra mobile phones to help prisoners in England and Wales keep in touch with family and friends during the coronavirus lockdown. While prisoners can only make outgoing calls to people on a list of approved contacts, it is believed contraband mobile phones continue to be smuggled in and used to carry out criminal activity.

Almost 12,000 contraband mobile phones were found in prisons in England and Wales from 2019 to 2020, up 3% on the previous year. Finds of SIM cards were up by 3%, chargers by 8%, and memory cards by 37%. With the current prison population standing at almost 80,000 prisoners in England and Wales, this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Legacy measures

Prisons have traditionally used a method known as “jamming” to block communications and tackle the issue of contraband mobile phones. This blanket and outdated approach works by transmitting a signal to prevent the handset receiving its base station signal. But it comes with inherent weaknesses: all phones and SIM cards within a “jammers” reach will have their mobile reception blocked, and crucially “jamming” fails to build any intelligence and insights around illegal activity taking place inside and beyond the prison walls.

To understand the full picture of illicit mobile use in prisons and identify and prevent criminal activity, prison security teams need to gather social intelligence on the patterns of behaviour. This can include how devices and SIM cards move through a prison, monitoring who inmates are calling and the conversations taking place. Staff then have enough knowledge to undertake in-depth analysis of the communications to support ongoing investigations and take positive action by intercepting the calls.

Depending on the laws of the land and following authorisation, prison officers can now also use IMSI and WiFi-catcher technology to identify the location of contraband mobile phones, down to the precise cell.

An IMSI is a 15-digit number assigned to the SIM card which is unique to a subscriber and identifies the mobile user within the network. Every SIM card is assigned this unique number to ensure network providers receive payment for all calls made, even if the SIM card is used in multiple handsets. An IMSI-catcher works by fooling nearby mobile phones into connecting to it, meaning prison officials can gain access to the IMSI number.

Because smartphones by default are constantly searching for a WiFi connection when switched on and WiFi is enabled, WiFi-catchers can identify any contraband mobile phones within the prison site quickly and effectively. A network of IMSI and WiFi-catchers can be deployed permanently within a prison environment, with the capability to set zones.

Balance of priorities

There has been an ongoing debate surrounding the ethics of using interference technology such as IMSI and WiFi-catchers, with critics arguing they are an invasion of privacy.

But prisons are unique environments and legislation has long been in place making the possession of a mobile phone illegal behind the walls. The invasion of privacy argument, whilst being an important consideration, does not trump the prison’s duty to protect the public, in particular when it comes to national security and the reputation of the prison service.

One of the main issues associated with this type of technology relates to the privacy of surrounding residents and fears of their phones also being monitored. The Prisons Act 2012 meant fake base stations such as IMSI-catchers could only be deployed within prison walls. However, amendments to the bill in 2017 authorised mobile network operators to deploy interference devices to monitor the use of mobile phones in prisons, which has raised concerns about the relaxed rules around the location of IMSI-catchers.

The miniaturisation of technology has meant that, where IMSI or WiFi-catchers could only be used in a fixed place in the past, now they can be made portable and more targeted to specific areas of prisons. This means prison officials have greater control over where devices are monitored and the areas outside the prison complex such as car parks, access roads, or residential areas are not affected.

Embracing new technologies

There is no silver bullet to eradicate the use of illicit mobile phones and improve wider prison

security. As pressure mounts on prisons to handle the flow of contraband entering prisons, a multi- layered and holistic approach is needed – encompassing innovative mobile technologies, CCTV, door access, visitor management and comprehensive training.

As security technologies evolve, so do the prisoner’s attempts to smuggle in contraband. For that reason, blanket measures such as phone “jamming” are unsustainable and ineffective in today’s digital communications landscape. An effective prison security system relies on leveraging innovative technologies and seizing the opportunities emerging to counteract the continuous efforts of prisoners to breech security inside and outside of the prison walls.