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Mobile phone threat in Australian correctional facilities

Mobile phones are becoming a significant security threat in Australian correctional facilities, an investigation into the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (MRRC) in Silverwater, NSW, has revealed.
Written by Abby Dinham, Contributor
Mobile phones are becoming a significant security threat in Australian correctional facilities, an investigation into the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (MRRC) in Silverwater, NSW, has revealed.

However, the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) seems to be at a loss as to how to address the problem.

The investigation, carried out by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), was sparked by the discovery of 6 mobile phones, along with various types of drugs, a Game Boy and cassette tapes, hidden down the pants of custodial officer Shayne Hughes in an attempt to smuggle the contraband into the MRRC December last year.

According to the MRRC an "enhanced demand" for mobile phones and ease of which new models can be concealed – due to their size and lack of metallic pieces – "is driving this upward trend".

The Inspector-General of Corrective Services, Lindsay Le Compte, said 164 mobile phones were found in correctional complexes during 2002/2003, a 53 percent increase on the year before. However, the ICAC said this most likely was only a "portion of the phones actually in the possession of the inmates".

Convicted for taking contraband into the MRRC and corruptly receiving benefits for his services, Hughes said detecting the phones would be a difficult task.

"A fan assisted drug device…that would pick up the drugs, but as for mobile phones I don’t know how you're going to do that because they're not even made of metal. I don’t think they'd be picked up on a metal detector," Hughes told his counsel during his hearing.

The NSW Parliament recently passed legislation to increase penalties for inmates found in possession of a mobile phone and mobile phone accessories, with the maximum penalty set at AU$5,500 fine or two years imprisonment.

However, the ICAC said due to the significant danger created by mobile phone smuggling a "technological solution is required that will reinforce the primary methods of interception".

The ICAC said the NSW government has suggested a "trial of jamming technology at the Lithgow Correctional Centre" to prevent mobile phones from being operational within the confines of the facility, but it said the ACA has yet to give its approval for the trial.

"To date, this approval has not been forthcoming and the Commission understands that negotiations for such a trial have reached an impasse," stated the report.

The ICAC said the presence of mobile phones in gaols present dangers such as "assisting inmates in arranging and executing criminal enterprises", providing a channel for inmates to conspire on acts of violence or organise escape attempts, and more "sophisticated phones" may also allow inmates to take photographs of correctional staff to identify them to outside collaborators.

The ICAC said that in the case of the MRRC -- which houses approximately 900 inmates, most of whom are awaiting sentence – phones could facilitate the intimidation of prosecution witnesses and allow "unconstrained communication" with outside allies.

In seeking to prevent the introduction of mobile phones into correctional facilities, the ICAC said the increasing sophistication of the functions of the device – such as Internet access and picture messaging – must be taken into consideration, as well as the handsets' diminishing size and lack of metal components.

Phone jamming?
The ACA identified alternatives to mobile phone jamming in its 2004 Mobile Phone Jammers report, the ICAC said. However, an adequate solution has yet to be agreed upon.

Micro-cells, that can be used to detect handsets that are receiving or making calls within the correctional centre was one such technological solutions suggested by the ACA, which would also allow authorities to monitor the illegal transmissions and also to disable the devices.

However, the ICAC said micro-cells cost in excess of AU$150,000 each presenting a significant obstacle to each of the 26 correctional facilities state wide in having one in house.

The ACA report suggests the purchase of a "portable micro-cell" would facilitate use at various institutions for random inspections, according to ICAC.

Hand-held devices that identify mobile phone signals were also suggested by ICAC as a possible solution. However, the commission stated that for "maximum effectiveness" the devices would need to be employed during times when prisoners would most likely be operating the mobile phones – after evening lock-up – when minimal staff is on duty.

According to the ICAC report, the Department of Correctional Services continues to "pursue dialogue" with the ACA to finalise a solution.

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