It’s not an exaggeration to say a mobile phone is a lifeline to the world. Ever since it became affordable to carry a portable phone line and mini-computer wherever we go, mobile phones have gone from nice to necessary to can’t-live-without-them. From senior citizens down to the tiniest tyke, people love their phones – most people, anyway.

So who doesn’t love mobile phones? Anyone who works in a correctional facility – because in a prison, a mobile phone isn’t a fun, useful gadget: It’s a safety issue.

Contraband mobile phones have long been a security and public safety concern for correctional agencies across the globe, and successfully detecting them before they do damage is one of the biggest challenges facing prison staff these days.

A Major Problem for Prisons

To the average correctional officer, a contraband weapon, or drugs, may be more dangerous inside the prison in the immediate term, but a mobile phone is more nefarious – because the damage it can cause reaches far beyond the prison walls.

Inmates can use a mobile phone to continue drug-dealing or organized crime operations; threaten public officials and intimidate witnesses and even coordinate murders. Just a few examples of the havoc a mobile phone can wreak from inside prison walls:

  • In the United Kingdom, inmates have run a cocaine ring, arranged the murder of a teenager as part of a feud and organized the killing of a gang leader.
  • In 2018, federal prosecutors said two inmates used smuggled cellphones to run a violent, drug-dealing street gang from inside California’s super-maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison.
  • South Carolina officials blamed a prison riot that killed seven inmates in April 2018 on a turf war between gangs over territory, money and contraband items such as drugs and cellphones.
  • Contraband cellphones have been linked to coordinated attacks on prison officials and other illegal operations. A South Carolina Department of Corrections officer was shot six times after a hit was put out on a contraband phone.
  • Fifteen prisoners housed in the North and South Carolina Departments of Corrections were charged in a “sextortion” ring, in which they used contraband cellphones to target U.S. military service members.


And it’s not just a handful of phones causing these issues; the numbers paint a grim picture of the extent of the problem. In South Carolina in 2017, prison officers found and took one phone for every three inmates, and many other agencies have similarly high phone-to-inmate ratios – for example, in Oklahoma, it’s one phone for every six prisoners. At least 15,000 mobile phones or SIM cards were confiscated in English and Welsh prisons in 2017, equivalent to one for every six inmates. It’s a widespread epidemic.

In an effort to clamp down on the mobile phone contraband problem, some correctional institutions have explored “jamming,” or blocking mobile reception by using a device to transmit a signal on the same frequency, and at a high-enough power, that the two signals collide and cancel each other out.

Others look to what’s called “managed access” in which only communications from approved devices are passed to cellular carriers, or international mobile subscriber identity-catching (“grabbing”), in which phones are attracted to a fake network and can be monitored or blocked.

But there are several reasons that these options will not stem the tide of illegal cellphones in prisons.   

Manipulating Signals Is Not Effective  

While attacking contraband phones through their signals seems like a good way to ensure even phones that make it into prisons can’t be used, there are some major flaws to that solution.

A cellphone can be used as a data storage device as well as for transmission. Even without signal and data access, a phone remains a useful data storage device. Inmates can record audio and video messages and arrange for the phone’s movement into and out of prison through staff, visitors and other means, using the phone itself or its SD/SIM card to carry data and continue to conduct criminal activities. The phone/data storage cards can also be used internally only, to pass information between inmates.

Staff can disable or unplug jammers, rendering them useless. It’s not a scenario prison officials like to envision, but corrupt correctional officers and other staff can be bribed by prisoners to unplug or disable jammers temporarily to allow the inmates to make calls or send data. When it’s only a sporadic occurrence, it makes it very difficult to detect without catching the CO or inmate red-handed.

Methods that target signals can create issues with internal communications. Because mobile reception is blocked entirely, jamming blocks all phones and SIM cards within the jammer’s reach, including those of prison staff. Grabbing, as well as managed access, allow staff phones to be put on unaffected “white lists,” but these methods are costly.

Jamming, grabbing and managed access offer mixed results. Here’s the biggest reason of all: These methods simply are not the all-encompassing solution officials once hoped they were.

In 2012, California deployed managed access technologies at 18 of its 35 prisons, but halted expansion of the program in 2015 because other technologies were outpacing the managed access system, and is moving to other types of solutions.

Managed access didn’t work because cellular service providers switched to what is commonly known as 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology, which uses new frequency bands. Carriers also are transmitting voice calls over what amounts to a Wi-Fi network. The prisons’ managed access system doesn’t capture Wi-Fi, Skype or satellite transmissions, unless inmates use Skype and other social media applications through a cellular connection. A nonpartisan study from the California Council on Science and Technology detailed a lengthy list of additional potential problems with managed access before the system was even deployed.

The issue remains that technology is always changing, which means jamming, grabbing and managed access systems are only as good as the technology they were designed for. These systems would require constant upgrades to keep current – and not only are these methods expensive to deploy, but they’re even more costly to upgrade.

Additionally, where there’s a will, there’s a way – even with the most updated technology. A trial in two Scottish prisons deployed a grabber system, which cost more than 1.2 million pounds to deploy. A report on the trial shows “resilience issues” and the system’s “lack of intelligence” – and all that cost was for naught in the end: Prisoners developed what officials described as “innovative countermeasures” to circumvent the phone block.

Prison officials know better than anyone that inmates will go to any lengths to obtain contraband – invent a new method of detecting or preventing, and inmates will find a way around it. Contraband has many portals of entry to a facility: Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can fly over fencing; objects are thrown over walls; food shipments and mail deliveries hide illicit materials; and work-release inmates and staff bring contraband in a side door – or even within their own body. Even the provider of the managed access systems for the California Department of Corrections told the Associated Press regarding contraband phones, “There is no magic bullet. You can’t try to address the demand because the demand is always going to be there.”

The reality is that contraband mobile phones in prisons is a complex issue that no single technology or method can address. Instead, successfully fighting contraband phones requires multiple technologies, tactics and training.

The Solution: The Multilayered Approach to Security

To fight contraband, correctional facilities must use a layered security solution.

Tactics include highly qualified and trained staff; roving COs; walk-through metal detectors and X-ray equipment at main points of entry; portable detection equipment; random screens; high fencing/netting; drone detectors; shakedowns and more.

Technologies should be deployed at all entry points (front, back and side), as well as facility-wide. An example of something that can be used throughout a facility is a portable ferromagnetic detection system (FMDS), which uses passive sensors that detect a magnetic signature, down to a millionth of the earth’s magnetic field. It takes less than a minute to set up and passively detects ferrous metals as people and objects move by, allowing more detection in less time and fewer unnecessary close encounters between staff and inmates.

Staff can use FMDS alongside X-ray equipment at entry points to screen people, then pick up the unit and use it throughout the facility to conduct full-body searches of inmates and screen mail, laundry, mattresses and other inmate property. The units run on batteries – there is no need for an electricity source, as with a walk-through detector, giving correctional officers the ability to bring a security solution all around a prison without worrying about a power source.

This technology has been deployed in 46 countries across the globe, including in all New Zealand and United Kingdom prisons; all 54 state prisons in New York; all 24 state prisons in Maryland; and in California and Indonesia. FMDS goes beyond detecting phones and can find any ferrous metal contraband, including weapons, and can even detect ferrous metal objects inside a human body – unlike hand wands or walk-through detectors.

The most important success factor for any correctional facility is its staff and the training they’ve undergone; all the innovative tactics and cutting-edge technologies in the world don’t matter if the staff is not well versed in them.

The human factor is vital in every aspect of security, and making staff experts on tactics and technologies through hands-on training (including refresher courses for veteran COs) will help staff understand how each method contributes to the layered security approach – and how it enhances their own safety as well.

Many Tools, Not Just One

Inmates will never stop trying to smuggle in mobile phones and other contraband, which means prisons across the globe have their work cut out for them – and no single solution will help keep phones out. 

A multilayered, holistic approach to security that encompasses the entire facility using both technology and traditional methods, bolstered by high-quality training, is the ideal way to keep contraband – including mobile phones – from creating disruption in a prison.

Having many tools in the toolbox is more effective than having a single tool, and a multilayered security solution puts many tools in the hands of correctional professionals, helping them maintain order, security and safety – both inside a prison and outside it.