Illegal phone usage in jail studied
Prisoners could be free to use smuggled phones to contact their families because there is not enough money to stop them, new documents show.
Ministers have sought to bring in the latest technology to block mobile phone signals in prisons as the Government tries to impose a harsher regime in jails across the country.
Illegal mobiles are used by prisoners to order violent attacks, harass victims and maintain links with criminal gangs and extremists, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
In 2012 alone, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was told 6,959 illegal phones and sim cards were found in English and Welsh prisons.
In a speech last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the Government wanted to introduce tougher penalties for those caught with mobiles.
The Government subsequently passed legislation authorising prison governors to use technology to disrupt the use of phones in prisons.
But documents from the MoJ states the technology is "prohibitively expensive", although a spokesman for the department insists they have used signal jammers in trials across the country.
Officials have now commissioned a research project costing up to £70,000, during which prisoners will be interviewed to find out why they use smuggled phones.
Where prisoners are found to use their phones for low risk calls, such as contacting relatives and friends, they could avoid being targeted by the authorities.
This is because the focus is set to fall on offenders using their mobiles for "dangerous" criminal activity.
There is no suggestion that if they are caught using a mobile to contact their family they will avoid punishment.
Once they have carried out the research, officials will consider cheaper alternatives to the "jamming" technology.
The details are contained in a document sent out by the MoJ advertising the research project to companies.
The publicly available advertisement says the effort and resources dedicated to finding phones in prisons varies in each jail.
It states: "Since a net increase in resources is not feasible, it seems logical to target existing resources at the mobile phone usage that poses the greatest risks (eg organised crime).
"This research project will help us to understand what mobile phones are used for, and therefore what proportion falls into this higher risk category.
"This will help NOMS to build a policy around reducing / eradicating the potentially most dangerous mobile phone usage at a time of scarce resources."
According to the MoJ paperwork, inmates from at least 15 prisons are expected to be interviewed as part of the research, which starts this month.
A survey will also be sent to the head of security at each English and Welsh prison, along with a select number of foreign prisons.
HMP Ranby, Nottinghamshire, and HMP Kirkham, Lancashire, have already been approached to take part.
One prison charity welcomed news of the research project and insists changes are needed to ensure families can maintain contact with relatives in jail.
Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said inmates should be allowed more contact with their families by telephone.
She said: "Most prisoners use mobile phones to contact their family as there's one phone on a (prison) landing and it's a pay phone.
"They have to use their hard-earned cash and queue up and they are only allowed to speak for a limited period of time.
"If you want to say intimate things to loved ones or read a child a bedtime story then it's not the best way to do that.
"We have talked to a lot of prisoners and former prisoners on why they use mobile phones and it's to keep in touch with their family.
"It's essential for a prisoner but more importantly for the family.
"The family have the right to keep in contact as well and that gets forgotten when the Government is trying to get headlines... for their own political purposes and careers."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said Labour would try to operate a "zero-tolerance" on all contraband being smuggled in to prisons.
He said: "The law-abiding majority will find it unacceptable that the Ministry of Justice are breaking the promise they made to sort out the problems of mobile phones being used in prisons.
"They may try and spin that they will focus only on phones used to run criminal activities from behind bars but this ignores that once phones are inside jail, phones are circulated between prisoners, making no distinction for who is using them and for what purpose."
But the Government defended its efforts to tackle the usage of illegal mobile phones in prisons.
In a statement, an MoJ spokesman said: "The Government is clamping down on mobile phones in prison and has rigorous security measures in place to prevent illicit mobile phones being used in prison.
"Mobile phone blocking technologies have already been trialled in prisons and additional blocking capability will be rolled out across most prisons in the estate soon.
"We will announce more details in due course."
The research project, which is expected to run from January until September 2014, includes analysing the content found on mobile phones and sim cards confiscated in jails.
The MoJ paperwork states a minimum of 15 prisons should be identified and they should be spread across the country and be from rural and urban areas.
The first listed "key" question the research wants to examine is: "What drives the demand for mobile phones within prisons?
"How much is for maintaining family conduct and how much is for other more criminal purposes (including criminal networks, gangs, terrorism)?"
The second is: "Are certain types of prisoners more likely to want a mobile phone and so drive demand in particular establishments?"
And the third asks: "Which non-technical factors could be most effective (and cost effective) in reducing both the supply and demand for mobile phones in prison (including ways of counteracting the prison economy that surrounds the use of mobile phones)?"
The document also says: "This research project will help us to understand what mobile phones are used for, and therefore what proportion falls into this higher risk category.
"This will help NOMS (National Offender Management Service) to build a policy around reducing/eradicating the potentially most dangerous mobile phone usage at a time of scarce resources.
"Although there is believed to be a strong connection between drug trafficking/corruption and illicit mobile phones, there is currently little existing published research in this field within the UK."
The paperwork adds: "Mobile phones in prisons are used for a range of criminal purposes such as commissioning serious violence, organised crime, harassing victims and involvement in extremist networks or gang activity.
"Furthermore, access to mobile phones is also associated with drug supply, violence and bullying.
"The problem is widespread."
The document talks of ongoing work to develop plans for NOMS to "manage prisoner communications, reduce and control criminal activities and reduce expenditure on equipment and the need for time-consuming searches".
It adds work is also taking place to examine the most effective technologies for detecting and blocking phones.