As intelligence-gathering processes in corrections evolve, so do the workarounds opportunistic inmates come up with to coordinate illicit dealings.
This has become one of the most pressing issues for correctional facilities today. Some are ill-prepared to tackle the alarming inflow of contraband cellphones and intercept actionable communication to the outside.
What has ensued is a game of digital chess and a lot of confusion.
Unfortunately, the solution to contraband phones isn’t as simple as throwing manpower at the problem. Reallocation of time and resources is a largely infeasible ask, given that many facilities suffer from personnel shortages as it is.
Those in leadership roles appear to be at a loss as to how to slow the flood of incoming phones.
According to recent national data, facilities everywhere are rife with prohibited devices. South Carolina has the biggest problem on its hands, with Georgia and Alabama not far behind. The Palmetto State found that as many as one in three inmates were in possession of a smuggled phone.
Last year, lawmakers along with prison officials there sought to address the issue at the federal level. That combined effort led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implementing a system aimed at pinpointing “where contraband phones may be in use and request[ing] that wireless carriers have them deactivated.”
Officials in South Carolina and the larger corrections community think that while necessary, the FCC’s action is merely a half-measure. They advocate for “signal jamming”—a stiffer strategy that blocks cellphone reception.
Jamming, however, gives rise to a host of concerns, not the least of which is the interruption of staff communication. Security Magazine explains, “Because mobile reception is blocked entirely, jamming blocks all phones and SIM cards within the jammer’s reach, including those of prison staff.” Though far from a definitive solution, jamming remains front and center in the discussion.
Increasingly, though, corrections investigators are embracing a different kind of digital solution: inmate communications systems.
Many facilities are now equipped with inmate communications systems or digital kiosks. It’s hard to argue with the benefits they offer: Inmates can maintain positive social connections remotely while facilities earn revenue from their communication.
Corrections leaders say they’re also critical to investigative efforts.
And it’s easy to understand why.
An inmate motivated to control illegal activities beyond prison walls will take advantage of whatever resources are at their disposal. Give them a kiosk or tablet, and they will use it.
Take it from Sean Stewart.
Sean served as Corrections Captain for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tucson, Arizona until his retirement in 2021. Decades of investigative experience taught him how incarcerated career criminals operate and how to conduct investigations by triage.
He’s long been a proponent of kiosks and tablets as a means of communication for inmates. Not only does he view these devices as behavioral management tools, but as a key implement for extracting data that becomes intelligence.
Using sophisticated data analytics, he developed techniques to identify where investigative resources should be directed. From there, he followed the digital footprint individuals involved in crime groups left, gaining insight into their often elaborate deception.
Being proactive in surveilling inmate communications—something he wishes more corrections investigators would do—enabled Sean to concentrate on leads worth pursuing.
“If you tap into communication,” Sean says, “you’ll know everything that’s happening in your facility.”
He also stresses that patience is the greatest virtue an investigator can have.
Inmate communications systems come with security features that assign individual PINs for ID verification purposes. One of the most common tactics inmates involved with organized crime employ to circumvent that is PIN sharing.
This form of deception allows multiple bad actors, including the boss, to speak to the same contact (or anyone else using that number) on the outside. If PIN sharing goes undetected, crime networks can continue unabated, moving drugs or orchestrating violence.
Of course, the ultimate goal for these outfits is to protect the inmate who’s highest in the pecking order.
That’s why, once evidence of PIN sharing surfaces, Sean says investigators should resist the temptation to quickly clamp down. If you ask him, enforcing discipline for these infractions is a misuse of the intelligence.
With enough patience and diligence, a trained detective will eventually get to the “shot caller.”
“You have to always be one step ahead. And you never know—the person [you’re tracking] could be a victim, strongarmed by a career criminal,” he says.
Sean states that investigators who leverage digital intelligence properly will let their inmate communications system aid their investigation from beginning to end.
To keep up with evolving investigative needs, providers are starting to introduce new data-gathering tools like Voice ID, which verifies that the correct inmate’s voice is present in a voice or video conversation.
It’s true that digital intelligence won’t stamp out the rampant contraband cellphone problem overnight.
Still, it’s sure to help investigators identify the pipeline sooner—a possible solution corrections professionals really ought to consider.
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