meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™
meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™

Cell Phones In Prisons Are A Big Security Flaw

This is an older article, but it is interesting for the perspective it gives on the problem of contraband cell phones smuggled into the prisons of Europe. As in the U.S., jamming cell phone signals is the primary approach being considered to eliminate smuggled prison cell phones.

Drugs and weapons aren’t the only contraband in prisons these days. The latest underground currency among inmates is an item most of us consider harmless: the cell phone. And so far, prison officials are fighting a losing battle to keep inmates from obtaining cell phones and using them to communicate with people both inside and outside prison walls.

Recently in Serbia took place an interesting case regarding this issue, when local jail inmates sent SMS messages from their cells in program of a TV show. This correspondence of prisoners with family and friends was registered by the operational center of the “Authority for management of criminal sanction”, an organ of Ministry of Justice of Republic of Serbia. It has been discovered that some inmates from lower security level areas of prisons, where television watching is allowed, received messages until early morning hours via a TV show called “Farm”, and sent SMS to family members and friends from their smuggled mobile phones. During unannounced inspections in several prisons in Serbia last year, authorities found 22 smuggled mobile phones, as well as 20 hand-made daggers, several bars and a few grams of substances which are found to be narcotics. Serbian Ministry of Justice then announced that this action of confiscation was part of a unannounced check and search operation of all areas and inmates in correctional institutions in Niš, Požarevac, Sremska Mitrovica, District Prison in Belgrade and correctional institutions in Kruševac and Valjevo. The problem of contraband cell phones in prisons have all countries in the region. This year, there were few such cases in Croatian prisons, where several inmates used mobile phones to threaten witnesses. Furthermore, it was discovered that some prisoners used mobile phones to coordinate drug trafficking from countries of the region to Croatia. Inmates sometimes use cell phones to keep in touch with friends and family on the outside — collect calls made from inside prison facilities are notoriously expensive. But officials say cell phones are also being used to orchestrate crimes, harass witnesses, organize retaliation against other inmates and even order hits. Mobile phones in prison cells is a problem symptomatic in most correctional institutions in the world. In California, home to one of the largest prison systems in the world, more than 2,800 cell phones were confiscated from inmates last year, double the number seized in 2007. In Texas, prison officials seized 549 cell phones from inmates in the first four months of this year alone. In California, a prison staff member admitted to earning more than $100,000 last year by selling cell phones to inmates. Germany also did not remain immune to this phenomenon . The German Ministry of Justice issued a fact that in 2009., prison authorities across Germany confiscated 286 cell phones from inmates. In many prisons, cell phones have become as valuable as drugs, if not more so. In a recent sting operation in Texas, an undercover officer was offered $200 by a prisoner for a cell phone and only $50 for heroin. California officials say inmates currently fork over between $100 and $400 to obtain a smuggled cell phone. It’s easy to understand why cell phones command such a premium. Unlike the one-time sale of drugs, an inmate can rent out the same phone dozens of times to fellow inmates.

Technical Issues in Checking Contraband Cell Phone Use in Jails and Prisons

“In the broadest sense, contraband cell phones are a technical problem and eliminating them demands a technical solution. Technology advances have allowed them to be made smaller and more powerful – and easier to conceal. These days phones are half the size of a cigarette pack, and SIM cards, which can be used interchangeably on most cell phones, are smaller than a postage stamp,” said Terry L. Bittner, Director of Security Products, ITT, manufacturer of commercial and military security solutions. Bittner said conventional methods of locating them will only become more difficult. Detection systems have shown that general shakedown searches have failed to detect them. Dogs can be trained to detect cell phones and have had some success, but they aren’t foolproof. The case for jamming is certainly intuitive – if jamming signals could be precisely controlled as advertized. Jamming systems have been used for everything from blinding enemy antiaircraft radars to blocking or attempting to block the Voice of America. By some reports, the Soviets were spending more to jam VOA broadcasts than the United States was spending to transmit them. Jamming is used as a temporary force protection method against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). ”Jamming is also largely effective – sometimes too effective. Some systems will not only prevent cell phones from being used in the jail, but near the jail as well. Most of our experience with this effect is from overseas. In both India and Brazil, cell phones up to five kilometers from the prison were jammed by the prison jamming systems. Recently, a prison in Ireland was forced to stop jamming because their system interfered with the legitimate cell phone signals in the hospital across the street from the facility,” Bittner said. Proposed American prison jamming systems also have gaps to avoid interfering with bandwidths used by emergency first responders. Public Safety communications in the 800 MHz band are interleaved with commercial wireless systems, so jamming equipment intended for use in the United States doesn’t jam that band. That’s good for first responders, but could also make the cell phones using that bandwidth, such as Nextel’s, the inmates’ carrier of choice. And that brings up another problem with jamming – it produces no intelligence. Cell phone signals are blocked, but prison authorities have no idea whether cell phones are present and/or where they are located. Jamming creates the illusion of security. An inmate with a contraband phone on an unjammed bandwidth, or from a dead zone can make calls with relative impunity. Buttner notes the optimal solution is a system that prevents phones from getting into the prison in the first place. But a system that detects and locates the cell phones inside the prison, alerting authorities to their presence and location, and giving them the option to move immediately to confiscation or to observe them in action to gain intelligence on the movement of contraband is the next best thing. And the system should also have lower or comparable costs to that of jamming equipment. ”Radio frequency (RF) detection systems do not require any special legislation. They are already legal, and indeed, are being used in several prisons in the United States. Most systems simply detect the signals emitted by the phones, both when being used in conversations and when they periodically “ping” the nearest cell phone tower. If you leave your phone near a computer or television set, that buzzing sound you intermittently hear is the phone contacting the tower,” Bitnner said. RF detection systems consist of a network of receivers deployed throughout the prison that continually scan the entire cell phone spectrum many times a second. Continual scanning makes it nearly impossible to evade detection by keeping calls brief or only turning on the phone when making a call. When a cell phone transmission is detected, special triangulation software immediately pinpoints its location. The system also logs all captured events. ”Detection-only systems do not permit users to listen in on the conversations or gather telephone numbers. Systems that do allow for the interception of calls, phone numbers and text messages still require an accurate location so that those in close proximity to the prison are not intercepted (similar to jamming). Any cell phone in the hands of an inmate is contraband, and warrants to tap into the conversations can be obtained. Indeed, gang members operating in a Baltimore prison were nabbed in precisely this manner,” Bittner added. Detection systems allow authorized corrections officers and other authorized officials to carry their own cell phones, the most economical form of communications, within the facility, which would otherwise be blocked by jammers. They also enable officers to target searches, both for cell phones and the other contraband like drugs that the presence of cell phones indicates. Bittner added that perhaps the most effective solution combines detection with specially trained dogs. Dogs can be effective in finding contraband phones, but they have certain weak points. Like humans, they can lose interest, especially when much time is spent and nothing is found. Directed searches ensure that they are always hunting where the ducks are, as it were, ensuring they stay alert and enthusiastic. Indeed, a combination of detection and dogs may be the most powerful possible check to contraband cell phones. Corrections officials have a heavy responsibility in deciding wisely about deterring contraband cell phone use. As the vote in the U.S. Senate suggests, the politically “safe” proposal may be to jam because it is a solution that, in concept, is easy to understand. But jamming devices are being marketed beyond the walls, and the prison contraband may be the camel’s nose inside the tent. Jamming devices are being marketed to churches, theaters, schools, libraries, shopping malls, hotels (where house phone use and its attendant fees have all but disappeared), public transportation, office buildings and restaurants. Public safety officials are already worried about their ability to receive emergency calls, most of which now come from cell phones. So the technical decisions corrections officials make will have implications far beyond the prison or jail walls.

Signal jammers in prisons in the region

Last year, the “Authority of prison system” of Republic of Croatia initiated the action of implementing systems for signal interference and mobile phones detection around prison units across Croatia. The System deployment started with the purpose of precise “choking” of signals with special antennas, and mobile phone detection using non-linear detectors, which will enable to find them in prison cells even when disassembled. Furthermore, special detectors will operate at prison entrances, with whom will be searched for contrabands. This action is a part of a project to improve the security level in prison units worth 5.5 million kuna, and whose deployment will be finished until 2012. “Department of prison system” director Miroslav Mihoci, states that after the implementation of the system, cases like Cvikova, where prison authorities found two mobile phones in a prison cell, will not be repeated as soon as they secure funds for the purchase of this sophisticated technology. “We have already presented these projects to foreign donors and now we are waiting for the money. For detectors, some of which are already purchased, we will spend about 616,000 kuna, and the rest will fall off for focused antennas,” Mihoci said. Mobile phone detectors are already in use and are similar to metal detectors or explosive device detectors. They alarm even when mobile phones in its detection area are turned off. So far, the signal jamming antennas were not used because they were not precise enough and apart from prison buildings, many of which are located in populated areas, they were interfering with signals from users outside the prison. New, so-called directional antennas, when purchased, will be able to accurately determine the area where the signal has to be blocked. Legal expert for telecommunications ?uro Lubura explained that in this case, jammers are installed in each prison cell, and all prisons can be merged into a single system throughout the prison. “Such project would allow detection of any unauthorized communication attempt with precise detection of the prison cell. System administrators would have the ability to determine whether the system would just register the communication attempt or to do both, register and prevent the communication. While ordinary GSM signal jammers of great power radiate all the time and interfere with the signal in the protected areas, but also in the surrounding areas, our system radiates a very short time, and only after it detects illegal communications,” Lubura said. Croatia Minister of Justice Ivan Simonovi? and Miroslav Mihoci stated that the prison system reform will need more than a billion kuna in the next five years. They plan to get most of this money from loans by Council of Europe Development Bank, where some of the loaned money is non-refundable. “Part of the money will be obtained from donations by international funds, and the rest will be financed from the budget,” Simonovic said. This project, as well as the satellite surveillance of conditional convicts, electronic bracelet system and the construction of new facilities, are parts of the Action Plan to reform the prison system.

System implementation well underway in correctional facilities across Germany

Germany stands out as the leader in deployment of signal jamming systems and of mobile phones detection systems in Europe. Mr. Lubura as an example cites a prison in Hinfeld, Germany, where prison authorities implemented this system in 502 prison cells. “Implemented this way the system poses no risk of harmful radiation to humans,” Lubura states. German Federal state Baden-Württemberg installed signal jamming systems across its correctional institutions in 2008, being the first in Germany to do this. Systems were installed as a response to the large number of cell phones found in prison cells. Namely, 2007 in prisons of this region, which counts a total of 6450 prisoners, authorities found 153 contraband cell phones. Therefore, the Ministry of Justice of Baden-Württemberg reacted to this problem, implementing a specially designed system for signal jamming. A large number of signal jammers were installed across all prisons, whose interference range is just a few meters. This investment worth several million euros, Minister of Justice of this region, Ulrich Goll, rated as a complete success: “Contraband cell phones in prison units and their use in criminal purposes was a big security problem. Thus, we are pleased that the applied systems work, and that they do not interfere with signals outside the prison walls at any stage.”