Prisons: Cell phone jamming not working

Her Majesty’s Prison Service in the Cayman Islands has been using cell phone jamming equipment at Northward men’s prison since late 2009, according to the government’s Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs.

It just doesn’t work properly.

Portfolio officials made comments on the issue following a recommendation by Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams that the prison service install and implement cell phone jamming equipment in response to dozens of the devices being found at Northward last year.

“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,” Ms Williams said, following a review of an incident where three teenage female prisoners at Fairbanks women’s prison were strip-searched in an operation that recovered two cell phones from the prison dorm.

According to information obtained through an open records request, a cell phone jamming system was installed and has been operational at Northward men’s prison since December 2009. The technology was in use during 2010, when some 74 cell phones were found at the men’s lockup.

Government officials confirmed Wednesday the cell jamming equipment had not been working in all areas of the prison or at certain times, largely due to the proximity of a telecommunications tower next to the Northward site.

“What we’ve been told is that the tower and cell phone jamming technology are essentially cancelling each other out,” said Eric Bush, portfolio of internal and external affairs deputy chief officer. “We have experienced what they call ‘signal bleeding’ – that’s when the tower signal overpowers the jamming equipment.”

Prison officials are reluctant to discuss the specific nature of the problems caused by the duelling technologies, but Mr. Bush said it was clear the cell jamming equipment purchased in 2009 wasn’t working the way government wanted it to.

“We want to effectively nullify cell phones within the prison service,” he said. “I want to make them useless.”

The government has engaged in discussions with the cell phone jamming providers and also intends to speak with both LIME and Digicel, which use the Northward telecom tower facilities. Mr. Bush said the government was hopeful a resolution could be worked out, once all parties were in agreement.

Ms Williams said in her earlier recommendation that land line phones would remain unaffected by cell phone jamming equipment.

“The minor inconvenience it would cause to staff who 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, which Ms Williams said can be problematic if officers are determined to have used unreasonable force is searching for a cell phone or sim card.

To the average person who doesn’t spend a lot of time in prison, cell phones might seem a harmless device. However, Mr. Bush, whose portfolio 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.

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