In depth

Tackling drones, phones and unknowns: innovative solutions for securer prisons

Security market analyst

Author Bio ▼

Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
June 20, 2017

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The security drones report 2017

What’s the connection between a split tennis ball and the carcass of a wildbird?

That’s right. They both can be stuffed full of heroin or cocaine and hurled over a jail’s perimeter fence; innocent-seeming objects to be retrieved by drug-dependent prisoners or dealers inside.

These, however, are merely two rather rudimentary stratagems to breach prison security, because increasingly it is the case that criminal minds are focused on significantly more sinister hi-tech ruses to challenge the security of detention facilities.

So, how are today’s security specialists countering the life-threatening menace of smuggled knives and drugs facilitated by illicit mobile phones and drones and other incursions that place prison staff at risk?

It’s a question that prompts guarded answers, circumscribed by ‘classified’ national security restrictions, but within those constraints we’ll attempt to outline a number of considered solutions.

At the heart of the security problems besetting prisons are the connected issues of under-staffing and under-funding, against a background of an ageing prison estate, which can include the ‘legacy’ technologies underpinning it.

The POA (the Prison Officers’ Association) says: ‘The POA has consistently stated that the Prison Service is under-staffed and under-resourced. The government will have to face up to that realisation and deliver.’

Certainly, in twenty-five years, the prison population in England and Wales has increased by over 90 percent, while in fifteen years the ratio of prison officer to prisoners has shifted from one-to-three to one-to-five in male establishments, with often more extreme disparities due to understaffing.

It is in this context of stretched state resources that security specialists are advancing research and development in detection technologies to defeat the trade in prison contraband that fuels violence and intimidation directed at prisoners and staff alike. Assaults on prison staff have increased by 70 percent within the last decade.

Contraband searches

In our enquiry into prison security we have sought the insider’s view of security breaches. Naturally our sources (an ex-prison officer and an ex-inmate) cannot be named so we will accord them the composite identity of ‘HMP Insider’.

HMP Insider says: “Prisoners are subject to a rub downs when entering or leaving a new area but there is very little time for efficient checking so contraband items can be missed. In truth, it’s not safe for staff to be conducting a rub down of a prisoner with bare hands when the individual is likely to be carrying sharps [blades]. In my experience, passive drug sniffer dogs are only deployed in visiting halls and full wing searches.”

Despite these reservations, it should be added, there are cellphone detectors on the market, which without transmitting any interfering signal can give audio-visual warnings of an active device during a search.

We asked leading security specialist, Martin Grigg of 323 Limited to comment on such searches:
‘A very effective method of detection is intelligence and profiling but in the high-volume of searches being carried out in UK prisons every day this has limited use.

Therefore, technology plays an important part in deterrence and detection of contraband. There are scanning products on the market that will detect metal inside a human body. The various commercially available solutions use slightly differing techniques to achieve accurate detection.

One system uses micro-changes in magnetic fields to detect the smallest possible particles of iron and is very successful at detecting miniature mobile phones inserted in a person’s body. However, it will not detect a sheet fabricated by a prisoner from aluminium drinks cans, say, which could easily be modified to build makeshift weapons or form parts of an electronic circuit.’

Interception of smuggled mobile phones

To gauge the scale of the contraband crisis in prisons it should noted that 6,000 drug packages and 10,000 phones were seized in 2014, believed by commentators to be just tip of the iceberg of those undetected in the current prison population of 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales.

The very latest statement from the Ministry of Justice states: “The illicit use of mobile phones undermines the safety and security of prison. Under measures introduced in late 2016, we can now apply for Telecommunications Restriction Orders at Court to block specific mobile phones being used in prisons. Since the legislation was introduced (on 3 August 2016) we have had [in 8 months] more than 150 mobile phones cut off.

“In addition, we have announced new measures in the Prison and Courts Bill that will allow the Secretary of State to authorise mobile network operators to block illicit mobile phone signals across entire prison sites.

“This will allow industry experts to work more creatively and effectively to block signals and means that we won’t require a court order to stop the illicit and harmful use of mobile phones in prisons. In 2015, there were 16,987 finds in all prisons. One ‘find’ may constitute a handset containing one SIM card or media card, a handset only, a SIM card only, or a media card or USB only.”

In fact, in 2016 there were over 20,000 mobile phones and SIM cards discovered in prisons in incidents reported in England and Wales. The confiscation rate would then appear to be rising exponentially; the government’s National Offender Management Service (NOMS) seized less than 7,500 mobile phones and SIM cards in prisons in England and Wales in 2013. Using them, inmates had ‘commissioned murder, planned escapes, imported automatic firearms and arranged drug imports’, NOMS stated. ‘The problem is widespread.

The POA says: “The POA supported the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012 during its passage through the Houses of Parliament. We are, though, disappointed that it has not delivered the desired outcome of allowing the Prison Service to completely block the use of mobile communications from within all our prisons using the proven technologies available.”

Reticence about signal-denying jamming and grabbing

Despite the understandable reluctance of government spokespersons and state-appointed security consultants to tell the whole story, the jamming technology to block RF signals is evidently being actively applied in prisons.

Principally, there are two approaches: jamming/blocking and grabbing.

With jamming, a signal is transmitted to deny the receiving handset its base station signal. However, the downside is that all cellphones and SIM cards within the range of jammer will be blocked, including phones of prison staff with wider areas of the population and certain frequencies unintentially affected.

Disruption of public emergency and rescue radio services could also be an unintended consequence.

By contrast, grabbing entails an IMSI-catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catcher) made possible by the establishing of a fake network to which phones are attracted, interpreting the base-station to be genuine.

An illicit phone can then be tracked and identified. However, HMP Insider alleges that the downside of this approach is that the sophistication of newer 4G mobiles and smart-phones can circumvent interception.

Countermeasures to thwart contraband drugs use

HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales has given warning that psychoactive contraband substances are a major factor in the current crisis of violence in prisons. Spice is “the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system.”

Mind-bending synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Black Mamba are responsible for the “meteoric rise in the supply and use” in prisons, according to a recent report by the International Drugs Policy Consortium.

As a consequence of the behavioural changes induced in prisoners by psychoactive drugs, screen-monitoring techniques have intensified in performance, and their scope for realtime analysis has been extended.

Such predictive systems can alarm on pre-set suspect behavioural movement criteria. For instance, scene analysis algorithms applied to video analytics can be a preventative strategy, particularly relevant to a scene of potential self-harm. Crucially, such analytical techniques have greater impact on anticipating non-violent, planned misconduct than on spontaneous violence.

On the issue of drugs smuggling, David Honeywell, a criminology lecturer based at the University of York’s Department of Sociology, and an experienced researcher into methodologies for offenders’ pathways to rehabilitation, believes there should be investment in a more holistic approach:

“Previous studies have argued that the use of mandatory drug testing (MDTs) has led to prisoners moving on to harder drugs, reducing their chances of a random drug test finding anything in their system. Cannabis can stay in your system for several weeks compared to harder drugs.

“Also, I think when you consider that around 80% of the prison population have some form of mental health issue, often leading to self-harm, then surely the authorities should be looking at treatment as I believe a lot of drug taking is self-medicating other underlying issues often associated with mental health problems. This view, particularly applies to women’s prisons where inmates are at even greater risk of self-harming practices.”

To which we add the fact that the struggle to provide adequate levels of meaningful purposeful activity for prisoners, to develop skills or promote rehabilitation, continues to remain unresolved, with over 50 percent of prisons failing to achieve targets. Against these results, high levels of drugs misuse and large-scale and organised supply chains of drugs not detectable by MDTs loom as an even greater priority security issue.

Underperforming CCTV? Or failure to define operational requirements?

Security specialist Martin Grigg comments: “The electronic security industry in the UK is undergoing a change in that analogue security systems are being replaced with digital TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). The analogue cameras are less prevalent, yet the analogue technology is still fit for purpose, though future maintenance demands could be compromised by shortage of spares.

“Under-performing CCTV is more likely to be due to poor initial installation compounded by poor maintenance. The importance of getting CCTV right at the Operational Requirements stage cannot be stressed enough.

“Although new IP cameras offer greater resolutions than the older analogue systems they bring their own inherent problems. For a start, increased resolution is not necessarily a good thing. In any mission critical and high-security application the CCTV system should be used as a tool to aid security and not a protection device.

“A CCTV camera will not prevent a security breach, it will just record it. CCTV systems in these environments should be used proactively to detect unusual events and monitor ongoing situations. The gathering of evidence is only one third of a cameras operational requirement – the other two thirds require a person to use the system effectively.

“With this in mind, the operator needs to be presented with sufficient video information to meet the Operational Requirement. Any more resolution than necessary would be classed as over-engineering and a needless investment in the camera, the network, processing power and storage media.

“Very high-resolution is an excellent tool for reviewing detail of archived video, post event, but when it comes to proactive surveillance it could be a costly waste of money.

“It is often heard that CCTV systems under-perform but before this statement is made it should be considered what the operational requirements are, have they changed and how is the system managed. The change in operational requirements and over-dependence on CCTV is often the reason that under-performance is claimed.”

Nevertheless, on the question of the indispensible routine vigilance needed for those potentially smuggling-in drugs and phones, HMP Insider says:

“In my experience, there are not enough officers to monitor those carrying banned substances when passing security for Stop and Search. In our visitors’ hall the camera system has been defunct for years because there is no budget to repair it. Anyhow, even if the camera was in working order there would not be the staff to operate it.

In my 18 months of service I have had my bag checked just ONCE when entering prison. New recruits are often leaned on for contraband by long-term prisoners who use their relative naivety to advantage.”

Prison staff morale

The government’s campaign to recruit thousand of extra prison officers, with ex-armed forces staff actively encouraged to apply, has met with a mixed reaction from penologists. David Honeywell comments:

“If the past is anything to go by, employing ex-military personnel specifically, is a return to the former hyper-masculine environment. Certainly, three decades ago, that was the case in prisons where practically the totality of prison officers were ex-army personnel.

“During the late 80s female prison officers were permitted to work on the landings, which until then had been an all male environment. The Woolf Report (post-Strangeways Riot and other serious prison disturbances during April 1990) made 12 recommendations which involved a pronounced shift from the old school prison officer culture.”

HMP Insider endorses this view:

“It’s true a lot of ex-servicemen are employed in the prison where I served. Their shout-loud, no-nonsense approach seemed to be HMP’s desired characteristic. Yet in my view their bullying parade-ground manner could incite prisoner to violence, having deliberately provoked them to anger with no outlet for the prisoners’ emotions.

“Remember also, prison officers are predominantly male, create cliques, and often sexually harass female staff so an increase in this ex-military grouping rather runs counter to the Woolf Report’s findings, which recommended more women for recruitment, since the presence of female officers in male prisons was said to have a beneficial effect.”

Threat of drones and unknowns

As with mobile phones, the implementation of the ‘Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012’ in its applications to disable drones is also problematical. Current speculative strategies to impose ‘no-fly zones‘ to defend against drones dropping drugs and other contraband into mainland prisons are hedged around with wrangling legalities.

Security advisor Martin Grigg goes straight to the heart of the problem:

“Drones are an area of increased concern in that they present a new threat to prisons for both remote reconnaissance and delivery of contraband. Disabling a drone in a pre-defined area is relatively straightforward. A high-power directional microwave pulse will ‘fry’ its electronics and will ‘kill’ it in mid-air. The associated legalistic problems can be simply stated:

  1. The law around damaging other people’s property; and, more fundamentally, safety concerns . . .
  2. What do you do with 5kg of metal falling out of the sky!? There are many health and safety risks associated with disabling drones. A falling drone could kill an innocent person. The technology that returns a drone to its last way-point is a good solution but it is not hard to imagine a drone that is not using ‘standard’ aviation navigation techniques.

“‘Lateral thinking’ may well be an approach to practical solutions. The basic starting point should be ‘keep it simple’. For example, in the case of drones, would it not be more effective to spread nets over the prisons and obscure sensitive areas from view?”

The POA says:

“As with the use of mobile communication technology the POA would welcome the provision of forms of deterrent if they help to deliver safer, more decent and more secure environments within our prisons.

“So this is a case of ‘watch this space’ as pressure is mounting to resolve a problem that, according to a recent news report, approaches a solution in the Channel Islands where Guernsey has become the first in the world to use an invisible shield to foil drones programmed to smuggle in drugs, weapons and mobile phones.

“In this application for Les Nicolles prison, sensors act as disruptors to jam the drone by blocking radio frequencies of the control network between the flyer and the drone. The drone then activates return-to-home mode and it will then fly back to the position where the drone had signal with its operator

As this case indicates, innovative anti-drone technology is fast developing to keep pace with the tireless ingenuity of criminals intent on breaching prison security from within and outside prison walls. So pencil these dates in your diary . . . 20-22 June 2017, when the Drone Zone once again returns to IFSEC International for its 2017 edition.

Brought to you in partnership with The UK Drone Show, the Drone Zone will feature demonstrations of drone and anti-drone technology from Yuneec, Dedrone, Hitachi and Magos. The Drone Zone will form part of Borders & Infrastructure Expo, a brand new show within IFSEC dedicated to the protection of borders and critical national infrastructure.

We are grateful to Martin Grigg of 323 Limited (specialist consultancy and professional services to critical national infrastructure and high-security estates in the UK and Middle East); David Honeywell, of the University of York’s Department of Sociology; and the POA (Prison Officers’ Association) for their timely views on these security issues critical to the UK’s prison service.

Priority 10-point checklist for rethinking UK prison security:

1— Review Operational Requirements.
2— Rethink Staffing Levels.
3— Launch Mission to Boost Staff Morale.
4— Review Stop and Search Routines.
5— Review Visitors’ Hall Search Criteria.
6— Review CCTV Upgrades and Maintenance.
7— Review meaningful Purposeful Activity programmes.
8— Reassess prescription medication to mitigate addiction.
9— Review mobile phone blocking strategies
10— Assess anti-drone strategic options.

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Recent tragic events in Manchester and London have, among other things, underscored the importance to national security of getting Brexit right. This report considers the implications of leaving the EU for the management of the UK’s borders and making it as easy as possible for international business to thrive and legitimate movement to occur in a post-Brexit UK.

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