Prison boss: We’ll never find all cell phones

The embarrassing photos started circulating toward the end of April on social media websites.  

One depicted an inmate at Her Majesty’s Prison at Northward with a cigarette in his mouth making a peace sign inside his cell. Another shot revealed a prisoner on his cell cot flashing gang signs. Somehow, photos taken with a cell phone camera or iPod device inside the jail had made it to the outside.  

“The picture[s] in question shows a systemic failure of proper security measures, but also a failure in adequate rehabilitation,” said Eric Bush, chief officer of the government’s Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs at the time.  

New prison system director Neil Lavis just started work in the Cayman Islands the last week of June and has quickly come to grips with just how big a problem communications access to inmates has become. It was a bit more commonplace in his previous post at Swansea prison in Wales, but here in Grand Cayman, prison cell phones have been used as a tool to orchestrate chaos and even killings outside the prison walls.  

And using the current enforcement system, Mr. Lavis admits it will be impossible to prevent cell phone, iPad, Android or other smart phone device usage by prisoners in the near future. 

“Will I ever be able to stop it? Unless I get a blocker that works and I’m not in competition with a [radio tower] … I can say to you wholeheartedly, it’s not going to happen,” Mr. Lavis said Tuesday.  

With the proliferation of hand-held communications devices over the past 10 to 15 years, it’s a problem that the UK prison system hasn’t managed to get a handle on, the Bristol-born veteran prisons chief said.  

“Many companies publish glossy brochures about how fantastic their product is and … nothing has worked,” Mr. Lavis said.  

Cayman has similar problems. 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.  

Mr. Lavis is familiar with the issue. “The power from that mast [referring to the telecommunications tower located near Northward] … it negates the blocker,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is spend money on a system that doesn’t work.”  

Over the past few weeks, three cell phone seizures have been made inside Northward grounds, but Mr. Lavis admits that’s just a few leaves in the forest.  

“If we’re finding three, how many are there?” he said. “In the interim, all I can do is raise the profile of no tolerance for cell phones. If anyone is found with a cell phone, then straightaway they are taken out of general population, placed on report, given a [punishment] that’s weighted heavily enough to say ‘this is serious’.”  

Drug seizures 

Since the new prison director’s arrival, only one incident of drugs being seized inside the Northward perimeter has been reported.  

However, Mr. Lavis noted that the prison’s outer security fence at Northward provides an easy “line of sight” for suspects looking to make an illicit drop. 

“In [Swansea], there was high walls, so they couldn’t have line-of-sight, but they knew where to throw the stuff so it would land in an exercise yard,” he said.  

Although Northward has never had any official policy to this effect, Mr. Lavis said Tuesday that he would absolutely oppose any effort to allow in “minor” drugs like ganja for consumption to keep prisoners calm. In fact, the prison system is considering banning the use of cigarettes on the grounds at the facility.  

That’s going to be accomplished over time, the director stressed. 

“There is a risk with [banning cigarettes], because it calms people down at times of crisis. The first seven to 14 days in a prison is the time when self-harm happens … sometimes cigarettes calm that down.” 

Lavis office

Mr. Lavis


The walls at Her Majesty’s Prison at Northward provide a “line-of-sight” for criminal suspects to toss contraband into the lock-up.
Brent Fuller