A strip search incident that occurred in December at Fairbanks prison has led the Cayman Islands government watchdog to propose cellphone signals be jammed at both of the Islands’ adult lock ups.
Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams last week found the 4 December, 2010, strip search of three teenage female inmates at Fairbanks to be retaliatory, in dispute of a government investigation’s findings which said the search was not capricious or retaliatory.
Two cell phones and sim cards were found during the search, which was conducted one day after some inmates wrote complaint letters about prison guards. Following the nighttime search in the dorm – during which two of the inmates had to be wrestled to the floor – one of the guards was heard to say “that’s what you get for writing letters about officers”.
In general, the complaints commissioner states strip searches are intrusive and there are a number of other methods the prison service might use to find contraband such as cell phones.
Phone-jamming technology is one of those options, Ms Williams said.
“Since, realistically, it is virtually impossible to stop cell phone and BlackBerry use in prisons, this is a sensible, viable and – in the long-term – cheaper alternative which would avoid regular and repeated use of strip searching as a means of retrieval,” she said.
Judging from the number of cell phones and sim cards recovered within the men’s prison system, it would seem Commissioner Williams’ statements about “virtual impossibility” are well-founded.
According to Freedom of Information requests filed within the past year, 74 cell phones were recovered at Northward Prison during 2010. The prison service had no record of strip searches being conducted prior to property searches [cell searches] at the time any of those phones were found.
Ms Williams said land line phones would remain unaffected by cellphone-jamming equipment.
“The minor inconvenience it would cause to staff wanted to use cell phones and BlackBerrys for personal use would be far outweighed by the benefits,” Ms Williams stated in her recommendations to the government. “Phone-jamming equipment is currently used in prisons in many countries including; France, India, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden and is currently being considered for use in prisons in Germany and the United Kingdom.”
The prisons service has a detailed policy on when and how strip searches should be used. Among those instances include when contraband is believed to be stashed in the prison.
To the average person who doesn’t spend a lot of time in prison, cell phones might seem a harmless device. But Eric Bush, the deputy chief officer of the Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs – which has responsibility for law enforcement in the Cayman Islands – said prison officers work in a different world.
“In the hands of individuals [a cellphone] can be used as a method or tool to orchestrate chaos and murder,” Mr. Bush said.
The three prisoners in the Fairbanks cell on 4 December had never been in prison prior to their incarceration in 2010. Two were being held for armed robbery and the other on conviction for causing death by driving while under the influence of alcohol.
According to the portfolio report, the prison’s security director contacted Prisons Director Dwight Scott by telephone to inform him of the prisoner search that night. There was no evidence any written authorisation for the strip search was given by the prisons director, but Bush said previous prisons policy did not require that.
Three female prison officers entered the dorm around 9.30pm on 4 December, 2010. They were supported by two other female guards and three male guards who did not enter the dorm itself, Mr. Bush said.
“Nothing was found as a result of the strip search,” Mr. Bush’s report read. “A property search was then conducted by the same three female guards of the dormitory. Two cell phones with sim cards were found as a result.”
Ms Williams’ finding of retaliation in this case has the potential to open up the Cayman Islands government to major civil liability over the 4 December strip search incident.
“[Strip searches of prisoners] could not only put both the prison and the Cayman Islands government in violation of human rights protections, but [could] also leave both entities open to potential lawsuits,” Ms Williams said.
According to prisons search policies examined by the Observer, prison officers may use “reasonable force” to conduct a strip search if a prisoner refuses to comply with a search.
The policy states: “An officer shall not use force unnecessarily in dealing with a prisoner and, when the application of force is necessary, no more force shall be used than is necessary. Any case in which force has been used shall be reported in writing to the director immediately thereafter.”
A copy of this policy was stamped and dated 13 October, 2011. It was not clear whether it had taken effect prior to that date.
The prisons system has also installed and implemented the use of the Body Orifice Security Scanner or BOSS, which will be used to compliment normal prison searching techniques.
It consists of a non-intrusive and harmless scanning system within a moulded chair, designed to detect metallic objects, such as mobile phones and their component parts or weapons concealed within body cavities, the abdominal area and other areas around the body.
According to prison search rules, the BOSS chair can be used on prisoners or visitors “on any occasion where a search would normally be warranted”.
The chair can be used to assist in pat-down searches during visits or routine searches of prisoners upon entry to the lock up.
“It may also be used following a full search in instances where suspicion remains that a metallic, illicit item is concealed internally, and – in the case of male prisoners – a squat search has failed to reveal the item,” the prison search policy states.
The BOSS technology was only recently introduced for use at Her Majesty’s Prisons in the Cayman Islands. It was a donation from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.