Contraband mobile devices are being used by inmates to carry out a wide variety of illicit activities. Here’s how a digital intelligence strategy can effectively end the headaches.

From the outside, prison life is often viewed as a phoneless existence, insulated from contact with the outside world. The reality, however, is quite different thanks to contraband cell phones, which are finding their way into the hands of inmates all over the world.

Security Magazine states the illegal cellphone problem in prisons in near epidemic proportions saying, “In South Carolina in 2017, prison officers found and took one phone for every three inmates,… 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.”

Many uses can be innocuous with inmates using illegal phones to talk to their girlfriends, communicate with family members, or simply Google things out of curiosity, but a recent article by Louise Matsakis on shows how the recent TikTok craze has spawned Prison TikTok.

With 800-million users worldwide on TikTok to date, the video-sharing social network service has become the most downloaded app in the Apple App store with 41% of TikTok users falling between the ages 16 and 24. As the app is now available in 155 countries, the reach of users and their content is vast.

Not surprisingly, prisoners using contraband phones have flocked to the app, posting all kinds of content from the usual dances and skits to rare behind-the-scenes footage of conditions inside correctional facilities in hopes of facilitating prison reforms.

Yet, in the hands of some criminals contraband phones are being used for far darker purposes.

ABC News reports, “Some prisoners in states with the most seizures have used phones to shake down families of fellow inmates threatened with injury or death. They’ve hatched complex scams, posing as law enforcement to prey on victims outside.

“Meth rings operated by prisoners with cellphones, some with ties to prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Irish Mob Gang, and the United Blood Nation have been discovered in at least five Southern facilities. Phones have also played a role in breakouts, with one South Carolina inmate dialing up drone delivery of wire cutters and cash for his escape in July.”

From running a cocaine ring to coordinating targeted killings to instigating and organizing riots, contraband phones are becoming a nightmare for those charged with managing maximum security prisons.

USE CASE SPOTLIGHT: Protecting exploited children from behind prison walls.

Recently, a German correctional facility was looking to track inmate contraband phones under the suspicion of illegal criminal activity.

Once the mobile devices were confiscated, the facility reached out to Cellebrite to access the digital data contained in the devices. German authorities discovered that the phones had recently been tethered and an activated hotspot was identified.

Further investigations revealed that the inmates in question had established a valid contract with a mobile operator and were using their connection to surf the Internet. Further cloud-extraction analysis revealed a Dropbox application, which housed child pornography images.

Ultimately, the authorities uncovered an entire child exploitation network outside of the prison.

While the penalties for possessing contraband phones are high for prisoners, (in 2010 President Barack Obama signed a law outlawing cell phones for inmates in federal prisons and mandating up to a one-year sentence for those caught with one), obtaining a mobile device in prison isn’t that hard.

Unscrupulous guards bring them in, visitors sneak them in to prisoners on (or even in) their bodies. Others obtain them by working with outsiders who smuggle them in over fences or drop them in by drone.

Despite the penalties, corrections administrators are finding themselves inundated with devices—some of which are practically homemade. Sending mobile devices to outside facilities for extractions, however, is both costly and time-consuming.

This is why many corrections managers are looking to bring digital intelligence solutions inside their facilities to expedite turn-around times on device extractions and gain actionable intelligence faster while allowing them to share information more quickly both with other corrections facilities and outside agencies who may unknowingly be tracking the same criminals as the facilities who are actually holding them.

The Challenges

The challenges surrounding contraband phones inside correctional facilities are both numerous and complicated.

The volume of devices being smuggled into prisons is overwhelming and the gap between the number of monthly confiscated “dirty” phones and new devices coming in is widening.

Confiscating devices, however, is only half the battle. Gaining access to feature phones or unique ad-hoc phones is an ever bigger problem. Prisoners are not exactly using the latest iPhones. Some are 3D printed, some are made from toys (if you Google you will find some creative examples). Supporting these contraband feature phones is challenging, particularly when many may be deliberately damaged by inmates during shake-downs.

Additionally, the lack of expertise, knowledge, and training on the part of both internal staff and outsource personnel being hired to do extractions is a real disadvantage.

This is a digital problem and there is a digital solution, but corrections managers need to rethink their solution to cellphone overload by equipping their personnel with the right tools and training to perform data extractions from confiscated phones on site.

How Artificial Intelligence Can Help

Correctional staffs don’t have the time (or the stomach) to go through thousands of text messages, images, and videos. Prisons need to leverage AI to surface actionable insights from the mountains of data even the simplest devices can store to find hidden connections. It’s not just the data on these phones, tokens can lead investigators to a wealth of cloud data that may harbor crime-busting digital evidence.

Most prison communication platforms, like GTL or Jpay, “monitor and transcribe” (a hybrid of human monitoring and AI) keywords that can be integrated into AI-powered digital intelligence solutions as “watch lists.” This will ensure that a thorough scan of all the data is performed while not wasting limited human resources.

AI can also automate collection, correlation, and cross-referencing of data to find hidden leads or unexpected connections.

Secure Data Management and Collaboration

When managing the process of investigations there can be a need to enforce the relevant SOPs and regulations, and audit suspicious behavior of users. A centralized collaboration platform is essential to monitoring activity. It also allows all stakeholders in multiple locations within a given facility and between multiple facilities to access the relevant data.

The overlap between Correctional Security Threat & Intelligence Officers and law enforcement outside of prison facilities grows every day, often showing that multiple law enforcement agencies are tracking, watching, or investigating the same criminal groups without any awareness that another agency may be doing the same thing.

The result is that new relationships and partnerships are being formed in order to deconflict actionable intelligence and allow all law enforcement to work in a more coordinated and collaborative manner.

The DI Solution for Correctional Facilities

Cellebrite offers a complete, end-to-end digital intelligence solution for correctional facilities that simplifies dealing with contraband digital devices simple with an investigation flow that is effective, efficient, and manageable with multiple stakeholders. The solution is based on a unified investigation platform that allows correctional facility managers to access, manage, and analyze data to surface actionable intelligence fast, which makes command decisions easier and data sharing simple.

For correctional facility executives, the success or failure of building and effectively operating a contraband digital intelligence platform rests largely upon selecting the right partner. At Cellebrite, we work with correctional facility and traditional law enforcement partners worldwide every day to bridge the intelligence gaps and help build effective long-term strategies while solving the most immediate issues today.

Learn more about how Cellebrite’s digital intelligence experts can help your team, here.

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