New law proposed to disrupt the use of mobile phones in prisons

10 December 2013

The Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill will enable the Government to authorise Governors to use technology to detect and disrupt the use of mobile phones in prisons.  The Bill has the backing of the Ministry of Justice and it is hoped it will assist in reducing the intimidation of witnesses, disrupt the supply of drugs and other contraband into prison and to cause interference with criminal activity, currently orchestrated by prisoners from their cells.

All of this brings to mind the scenes from the film 'The Italian Job' and the much loved television series 'Porridge' which both depicted criminal gang leaders operating their illegal empires from prison cells. 

The situation seems to have become out of control and in 2011 over 7,000 illicit phones and SIM cards were found in prisons in England and Wales.  This of course is only the number of phones and SIM cards found and one can only imagine how many remained undetected.

The prison service has been testing a range of mobile phone signal denial technologies in a number of prisons.  It has been having to ensure that the equipment does not interfere with mobile phone signals outside the prison walls and in that regard has been working closely with mobile network operators and Ofcom. 

Prisons minister Jeremy Wright said "we are determined to address the risks posed by mobile phones in prisons and we fully support this Bill.  The new technology to locate smuggled mobile devices or render them useless will play an important role in tackling illegal activity in prisons.  Prisons work hard to tackle the consequences of phones in prison, but clearly the problem persists.  This will be an invaluable tool to combat this serious issue".

It is a criminal offence to take a mobile phone in prison or to transmit a signal from inside a prison and the offences carry a penalty of up to two years imprisonment and/or a limited fine.  This of course applies to both prisoners and other persons entering prisons, including prison officers and lawyers.

Currently there are a number of security measures in force to help locate and confiscate phones.  There are hand held metal detector wands, specially trained search dogs, mobile phone signal detectors and also the Boss chair, which is a body orifice scanning system.

The Bill intends to place on a statutory footing, interference with wireless telegraphy in prisons, to introduce statutory safeguards for members of the public and the mobile phone network operators, to allow private and public prisons to better tackle mobile phone use, and to allow all prison operators to use the data collected by the equipment to investigate illegal use of mobile phones in prisons. 

The above is not legal advice, it is intended to provide information of general interest in current legal issues.