Howard League blog · 13 Mar 2018
How to stop mobile phones being smuggled into prisons
The new justice secretary, David Gauke, has given his first speech on prisons. He focused on security, drugs and gangs and indicated that he would confront these scourges which, he suggested, were at the root of the problems faced in prisons.
Leaving aside that I think they are symptoms of a system in meltdown – and I think that self-injury, suicide and people dying prematurely are more important symptoms – his suggested remedies miss the mark and may cause more problems than they solve.
The justice secretary identified mobile phones as a problem. His five predecessors have done the same. They are correct, but that only goes so far, because illicit phones are also playing their part in keeping prisoners calm and safe.
Tens of thousands of smuggled mobile phones have been found in prisons in the last few years. Prisons are awash with them. As fast as staff find the phones, more are smuggled in. Perhaps if we dealt with the reason that prisoners are so keen to get hold of phones, we might be able to control the trade.
Prisoners are permitted to use phones on the landings, in full view and hearing of everyone milling about. The phones, which are operated using a special PIN, resemble the old-fashioned street payphones with a small hood. So there is no privacy to call your loved ones.
Prisoners have to pay the national rate for phone calls. They also have to buy toothpaste and supplement their food allocation, all at corner shop prices. If they cannot get a ‘job’ inside the jail to earn pocket money, which is just a few pounds a week, they are given an unemployed allowance of £2.50 a week – and this has not changed in a decade.
Perhaps if we dealt with the reason that prisoners are so keen to get hold of phones, we might be able to control the trade
Prisoners get only limited access to the phones as they are locked up most of the time. The queues for the phones are long and people get impatient. They only have access during association time and sometimes it is a choice between a phone call or a shower.
Prisoners have to provide a list of phone numbers to put on a list for their PIN. If, for example, their mother or partner or child goes into hospital and the mobile number is not on the list, that’s just tough.
This all means that prisoners want to get hold of mobiles primarily to keep in touch with family and friends. They want to say goodnight to their children. They want to keep in touch regularly to hear the news and maintain intimacy.
Of course, some prisoners want a mobile phone so they can carry out nefarious activities, arrange drug smuggling and other crimes. It would be naïve to think otherwise.
But my point is that if prisoners had better access to phones, the massive trade in smuggling them in would stop and staff could concentrate on stopping the inflow of phones being used for crime.
I rarely give a positive shout to the private prisons, but on this occasion they have led the way. In private prisons people have phones in their cells and the contracts are not with BT but other providers that are much cheaper. The calls may be monitored and listened into, so the serious security risks are managed.
I visited Thameside prison, run by Serco, recently and was told that self-injury is reduced when people are locked up in the evenings because men can call home, whereas that is the time when self-injury can increase in prisons without in-cell telephony.
The Ministry of Justice announced a programme of installing phones in cells but it seems to have ground to a halt. I was told that this is because the Prison Officers Association, the main union for prison officers, has objected. I say this without comment because, if true, I am too angry to comment expletive-free.
The justice secretary should be concerned about mobile phones that are being used to organise drug smuggling or other illegal activities, but if he simply cracks down on mobile phones without addressing the main reason they are in prisons, he will fail. Indeed, he will take away from the prisoners one of the few routes for family contact and he could trigger even more loneliness and family breakdown.
At the heart of this is the churn of ministers. They come in and see the surface problem without understanding the complexity of prisons and want to make a difference. But, doing the wrong thing, even for the right reasons, can have a catastrophic effect in the febrile atmosphere of prisons.