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It’s been over a year since the Serious Crime Act 2015 introduced the possibility of regulations to force mobile phone operators to disconnect illicit phones and SIM cards inside prisons. 




But, what’s happened since then and how close are we to being able to stop prisoner mobile phone usage? 

Well firstly, let’s just examine the four main options for tackling mobile phone usage inside:

Disconnection from operators: So far the regulations forcing mobile phone operators to disconnect illicit phones have not been enacted. This route is not without its issues either. Not only does it rely on cooperation from mobile operators, disconnected phones and SIM cards can be replaced. 

Stop and search: This is already used, where sniffer dogs are trained to find mobile phones, but some phones ultimately escape. It also doesn’t prevent phones from being dropped in by drones either. 

Blocking: A signal is sent out that prevents the handset receiving its base station signal. All phones and SIM cards within reach of the blocker can no longer be used. It’s a relatively cheap option, but interference outside of prison grounds can add to the cost. 
Grabbing: A fake network attracts phones and these phones are monitored rather than blocked. Nearby residents and staff can be put onto an unaffected ‘whitelist’, but it is considerably more expensive than blocking. 

What’s the scale of the problem?


According to the latest available Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics, in 2014, a total of 9745 mobile phones and SIM cards were seized in English and Welsh prisons (up from 7451 the previous year).

The very fact that so many phones are found in prisons even with such stringent security, it’s not hard to see why it can also be so difficult to locate and remove them. The Prison Officers’ Association believes the solution is simply to make them unusable, which brings us back to either blocking or disconnection. 

Mobile phone blockers are readily available though, and they have been trialled in a number of prisons here, although these have mainly been short range portable mobile phone blockers rather than those covering a much larger area. So what’s holding the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) back from introducing them? 

Well, NOMS has reportedly said that the costs of introducing such a system would be ‘disproportionate’, with an outlay of up to £300m to install and £800,000 a year to maintain; an amount that is largely influenced by the huge variation in design of our prisons. 

It is unlikely mobile phone blocking or grabbing will be introduced anytime soon then. After all, a recent £1.2m pilot project trialling mobile phone blocking technology at two Scottish prisons was thwart with problems. Prisoners were able to develop what the Scottish Prison Service’s report describes as “innovate countermeasures” to reverse the phone block.

As reported in Computerweekly.com, the equipment used at the Scottish prisons had the potential to cause harmful interference to people legitimately using their mobile devices outside of the prison grounds. This concern was raised in documents between NOMS and communications regulator, Ofcom. This could, the regulator argued, put people at risk by preventing access to emergency services. 

For now, it seems the jury’s out on whether mobile blocking will be brought in more widely. 

If you work in a prison and have experience of tackling mobile phone possession and usage, please share your views with us by leaving a comment. 
 

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