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Thousands of Mobile Phones seized in UK Prisons - evidence of corruption ?

Of all the places in the United Kingdom, one would have expected that Her Majesty's Prisons could be kept free of illegal mobile phones.

It should be trivial for the mobile phone networks to detect any unauthorised mobile phones physically within Prisons and to alert the authorities automatically (after,no doubt, charging them a suitable Location Based Services fee). It should be technically easy to install radio triangulation equipment which spots and accurately locates a mobile phone within a Prison, as soon as it is switched on, even for a few seconds.

However, according to these figures published in Hansard, it appears that the Ministry of Justice (and the Home Office before them) are failing to prevent the smuggling of mobile phones into prisons.

They claim to have seized 3,473 mobile phones (or SIM cards) in the last year (October 2006 to September 2007)

This must also imply that there is a huge illegal drugs smuggling racket as well, and that it seems very likely that corrupt Prison Staff must be involved:

Dec 2007 : Column 1261W


Prisons: Mobile Phones

Lady Hermon: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice how many mobile telephones were seized in prisons in England and Wales in each of the last 12 months. [170463]

Maria Eagle: Prison establishments are required to send all seized mobile telephones to HMPS Security Group for interrogation. The following table contains the number of mobile phones (which includes handsets, handsets containing SIM cards, and individual SIM cards) seized and sent for interrogation in each month from 1 October 2006 to 30 September 2007.

5 Dec 2007 : Column 1262W

MonthTotal number submitted for interrogation
October 2006230
November 2006249
December 2006178
January 2007310
February 2007330
March 2007240
April 2007272
May 2007400
June 2007302
July 2007334
August 2007333
September 2007295

We would like to see some statistics on how long it takes for these illegal mobile phones to be detected and confiscated.

The figures for each individual Prison should be also be published.

A Further Thought:

Given that modern mobile phones can also include BlueTooth and/or WiFi,then the radio security defences of Prisons should also check these methods of sending messages. An extended range antenna and/or an illegal amplifier, in a vehicle in the car park or in neighbouring streets could well penetrate the walls of the Prison, without making use of the actual mobile phone network.

Cordless DECT phone handsets might also be illegally amplified to reach in and out of a Prison.


There are also figures for three Prisons in Northern Ireland in the last year:

Commons Hansard 5 Dec 2007 : Column 1215W

Totals for December 2006 to November 2007:

Maghaberry: 28
Maghilligan: 41
Hydebank: 2

I'm not sure that it would be trivial for the mobile phone networks to detect any unauthorised mobile phones physically within Prisons.

To start with, how would you distinguish between phones in Visitor or prison officer area's vs phones in the prison.

What about people just outside of the prison?

Thinking ahead, the best way to do this would be to filter out IMSI's used outside of the prison area. Phones that don't have the mobility would be suspicious.

It's one thing to find out that people are using phones inside a prison area, but another as to finding who's they are.

@ Chris -

"To start with, how would you distinguish between phones in Visitor or prison officer area's vs phones in the prison."

What is so hard about forcing all visitors without exception, to hand in their phones at the gate ?

Any emergency mobile phones used by prison staff should be pre-registered ones only.

From the figures, the prison authorities obviously do detect and seize phones, but the fact that they continue to have to do so, month after month, shows that there must be ongoing corruption or ineptitude, or both.

Finding out who calls whom is just involves a routine Communications Traffic Data request under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - drug dealing or planning an escape etc. are easily serious enough crimes to justify this.

Since the number of SIMs obviously exceeds the number of handsets, a check on the IMEI is also required (although, obviously, that can be forged, depending on the model of phone)

Wandsworth Prison Independent Monitoring Board Report is quoted by The Times

The Times
December 3, 2007
Prison drug barons thrive on illicit phones
Richard Ford, Home Correspondent

Inmates in the biggest jail in Britain are ordering drugs, continuing to run criminal activities and plotting escapes using mobile phones that are smuggled into the building, according to a watchdog report.

The "apparently limitless" supply of mobile phones in Wandsworth prison is increasing the supply of drugs on the wings as well as "fuelling a whole group of new users", the report said. Almost 250 mobile phones were found inside Wandsworth, in southwest London, in the first five months of this year, the report from the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board disclosed.

"We still have very serious concerns about the apparently limitless supply of mobile phones in the prison that drive the easy availability of drugs and that are also used in bullying and intimidation," the report, which covers 2006-07, said. "Mobile phones are used to facilitate the delivery of drugs to prisoners, continue criminal activities from within, pressurise vulnerable prisoners, contact families of prisoners and staff, plan escapes, bullying, intimidation and a host of other unsavoury activities."

The report said that it was only a matter of time before a "very serious incident" took place because of mobile phone use. It said that more officers should be on duty during religious services to prevent worship being used as a cover for illicit activities, particularly drug dealing. It added that for three years it had warned the Home Office, which until earlier this year had responsibility for prisons, about mobile phone use by prisoners, but no effective action had been taken.

The board called for a jamming system around the prison but it is understood that this cannot be done because it would affect the use of mobile phones on roads outside.


The Independent Monitoring Board report for Wansdworth is available online as a .pdf file.


No need for all this technology really. All it needs is a few officers in each prison to be issued with a near field receiver. These cost around £10 to make (so probably a £1000 for the govt to buy !). In short they are a short range radio receiver that receives all radio broadcasts within a few tens of metres and GSM cell phones make a distinctive sound on them. If there was a suspicion of illicit cell phone use within a wing one of these receivers would soon find it.

@ 1327 - presumably the illegal mobile phones are not powered up for very long, to save batteries etc. which might make it hard for short range equipment to detect them, assuming that there the usual human lookouts watching out for patrols.

If certain wings, in certain prisons have become "no go" areas for Prison Officers, then the arrogant criminals may keep their phones on for longer.

The Irish Independent reports that

Over 2,300 mobile phones seized since 'Liveline' call By Tom Brady Saturday December 01 2007

MORE than two thousand illegally-held mobile phones have been seized by prison officers in the past year.

New figures show a massive increase in the confiscation of mobiles from prisoners since the introduction of tougher measures outlawing their possession.

The statistics reveal that 2,344 phones were recovered in prisons during the past 12 months.

And more than a third, or 832, were seized in Mountjoy in Dublin.

According to the jail authorities, much of the increase in seizures in Mountjoy can be attributed to new walk-through detectors at the jail at the start of August.

Given the relative sizes of the Irish and English prison populations, does this mean that the English seizure figures only repreent a small fraction of the number of phones

The Economist notes the expense and long queues for the monitored landline prison phone service, run by British Telecom

Mobiles are forbidden (though many inmates possess them), and most prisoners have only two hours a day in which they may use the payphones. These are limited in number and often broken, and the queues tend to be long. The charges are high, too. The minimum rate for a call to any United Kingdom land-line number is 10p, which buys 55 seconds of chat, after which it is 1p for every 5.5 seconds. To call a mobile costs 19-65p per minute. These rates are less egregious than those charged by other providers to many hospital patients, who are similarly unable to shop around. But they are higher than in public call boxes and for prisoners, whose average wage is £8 a week, they are mountainous.

B.O.S.S (Body Orifice Security Scanner) chair - see photos and prices and some technical specifications

This metal detector configured in a chair is in use at Wandsworth and perhaps at some, but not all, other UK prisons.

BBC Radio 4 IPM programme and blog featured this story today.

We will be watching our webserver logfiles for visits to Spy Blog from the Ministry of (in)Justice or other Labour Government political spin doctors, probably on Monday morning.

It was worrying to hear from the Chairman of the Wandsworth Prison Independent Monitoring Board, that, as we suspected, the number of seizures is just the tip of the iceberg, and that there are lots more illegal mobile phones being operated within prisons.

The spokesman from the Prison Officers' Association was rightly worried about mobile phones being used to threaten and intimidate inmates and possibly Prison Officers or their families (who are also at risk from the HMRC missing CD discs data disaster).

He also pointed out that Ministry of Justice response that they were doing various things (including trying out the BOSS system, mobile detection equipment, search dogs etc.) is all very well and good, except that the patches of good practice, do not appear to
extend to the entire Prison estate in England and Wales - over 150 prisons.

The report of the incident whereby a prisoner was beaten up by gang inmates and his injuries were photographed on a mobile phone camera, with the threat that the images would be sent to his family is another foreseeable consequence of allowing mobile phones to have become so prevalent in prison,

Remember that crude jamming or Faraday cage shielding of mobile phone signals could easily affect mobile phone services well outside the perimeter of a prison, if done stupidly or on the cheap.

Unless appropriate micro or pico cell transmitters or repeaters are also installed, then the shielding or jamming of a prison, will create a mobile phone reception "dead zone" shadow, which will prevent normal mobile phone use where the prison happens to be directly between a Cell Phone Mast and a mobile phone handset.

This includes a "dead zone" for
ringing the Emergency Services, so inappropriate jamming or shielding done on the cheap could contribute to injuries or loss of life.

BBC News has followed up this story with a report -Care to sit on the Boss chair? which involved a visit to HMP Woodhill high security prison near Milton Keynes, focusing on the Body Orifice Scanner chair.

The Labour Prisons Minister David Hanson is quoted as vaguely promising to see if these will be installed in every prison.

Given the other broken promises and calculated political lies (e.g. announcing the building of 3 new "Titan" prisons each with a capacity of 2,500 inmates, without the actual budget to do this), we remain to be convinced that sufficient numbers of such scanner equipment will actually be installed in every prison.

Mobile Phones are being brought into prisons by corrupt prison officers. Having visited Belmarsh recently, my son advised me that prison officers bring in drugs and mobiles for large sums of cash paid to them by people on the outside for prisoners.

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