I was reading a book at a table outside my cell, during my short stay at an HMP B-Cat, when my ears were pricked by the unmistakably jaunty melody of a Nokia ringtone (you know the one). A young neighbour scuttled past me en-route to his cell, face flushed scarlet as he desperately tried to get there before any of the guards noticed.
Two things struck me, one: how had it not occurred to someone two decades my junior to put his phone on vibrate (given we were in a prison). Two: why were there so many mobile phones in prison? Since it seems unlikely that all of them were being used for drugs trafficking and the prison provided pay phones for calling loved ones and lawyers.
While the first question still stumps me, the second persists, even today, some 4 years later.
If we go by recent estimates: some 10,000 phones are discovered in prison each year and while drug abuse is undoubtedly a major issue in our prisons this doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t bear scrutiny or make an awful lot of sense to claim (as some have) that most phones in prison are there to facilitate organised crime. If not crime, then what’s behind it? Perhaps some clues are to found in what I witnessed during my stay at HMPs Thameside and Stamford Hill.
During my time, it wasn’t uncommon to see otherwise placid and rational inmates manically pounding the receiver into the pay phone's metal housing, desperately scrambling for more change or suddenly becoming incandescent with rage towards the end of a phone call. The reason? Misunderstanding.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that one of the things inmates most fear is an argument or misunderstanding at the end of a phone call with their partner, kids or family. It’s simple, interaction with family is limited and it could be days before the inmate is given a chance to put things right, during which prison provides ample opportunity for brooding. Add into this the natural paranoia many inmates have about what their partners may or may not be doing out in the world and it’s obvious why it causes such distress.
Exacerbating the problem further, the cost of using prison pay phones is prohibitively expensive. Things may have improved since the BT scandal of 2008—when it emerged prisoners were being at 7 times the rate to the public to call their families, but regular calls are still difficult for the average prisoner to budget for. Prison pay phones are normally around 40p per minute, and credit has to be purchased in units of £1.00 at a time, which is then loaded onto the inmate’s pin. So, if your average phone call is for 1 hour, 2-3 times a week the cost can soon spiral past what’s affordable. Consider that on top of this, inmates use the same meagre (the average prison wage is about £10.00 per week) weekly budget for phone calls, haircuts, toiletries (including toothpaste in some nicks), television (which is taken at source whether or not you watch it), extra food (essential if you want any vitamin c in your diet), tobacco, “basic” groceries (for which read: sugar, coffee, tomato ketchup, mayonnaise), chocolate, tuna (the real currency in prison), and pretty much anything else they might need beyond bunk and board.
Like phone calls, these items can cost as much as double the price as they would on the high street—the race to the bottom which dictates competition between supermarkets has mysteriously never reached the ears of “approved prison supplier” DHL. So, what do you budget for? Precious phone calls home, eating, basic hygiene? These are the choices inmates face when budgeting for living inside.
While it’s true that those prisoners with private income (think white collar types) fare a little better, there are still strict controls on how much private cash cons can access at any one time. This is based upon the stratified Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. Convicted prisoners at the top (“enhanced”) level are able to spend up to £25.50 per week on top of anything they earn from their prison job. Prisoners at the “standard” (oddly not the average) level can access up to £15.50 a week, while those on entry level can access £10.00. For anyone unfortunate enough to be on the basic level, it’s £4.00.
For prisoners on the standard or basic level, it’s simply not viable to remain in regular contact with loved ones and eat properly or maintain a decent level of hygiene- is it any wonder life expectancy for inmates is decades shorter than non-offenders?
Another worrying factor is the sheer impracticality of the thing and its potential to hinder access to justice. To illustrate the point, during my time inside I had entered into divorce proceedings with my now ex-wife, needing access to my bank accounts in order to pay the legal costs, I’d granted my assistant power of attorney over my affair before my conviction. To cut a long story short and free of legal jargon, my chosen bank freaked out when they discovered I was a convicted felon and refused access to my money. After hours of trying to sort the matter out using a prison pay phone, I was fortunate enough to be offered use of the prison chaplains phone (due to my friendship and working relationship with him). I made note of the call time and it ran to 15 hours in total, without the chaplain's help I simply couldn’t have afforded this on my weekly allowance. What happens to those people without the good fortune of knowing the prison chaplain well is self-evident —either stump up the cash and find some other way to eat, or forego access to services which may be crucial to their interests or those of their families outside prison.
For vulnerable inmates, the situation gets worse still. To give an example my former cellmate David who suffered from severe learning difficulties and autism (whom I’m sure is familiar by now) used to spend on average £700-£800 a month on pay phone credit to speak to his mother. In David’s case, this was funded by the tax payer due to his autism, but not everyone I met was could rely on the state for support. I heard many stories about vulnerable people, who arguably shouldn’t have been in a mainstream prison in the first place, either going without the support they needed or buying pay phone credit at the expense of their diet or hygiene. In a setting that’s already renowned for its issues with suicide, chronic mental health problems, and life expectancy as it is, asking vulnerable inmates to choose between proper sustenance and the basic emotional need for time with loved ones, is at best reckless and a worst callous, dangerous and negligent.
Against this backdrop is it any real surprise that many inmates choose to risk being caught with a mobile phone? Even with a cheap pay as you go handset changing hands for 2-300% of their outside value, they offer many inmates a private and relatively (after the initial outlay) cheap way of staying in contact with their loved ones.
Picture yourself in the same scenario, you’re in for a long stretch and are unlikely to be able to afford regular calls with your family on your prison wages and your meagre weekly allowance alone. You can, however, afford a one-off lump sum, for a cheap pay as you go phone and for either a family member or contact to smuggle it in. The phone can then be topped up with credit as and when it’s needed, by a family member or loved one on the outside, usually at a tenth of the price. Meaning more time talking to family members, in the privacy of your own cell, without having to sacrifice your personal hygiene or calorie intake to do it. What would you pick?
Of course, the problem for prisoner administrators everywhere, is that for every 10 mobile phones being used for “legitimate” (however illegally) use, there is one being used to “commission murder, plan escapes, import automatic firearms and arrange drug imports”—in the words of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
So, what should the MoJ and NOMS do?
They could, as the new and rather guileless Justice Secretary David Lidington has suggested, mount a blood and thunder crackdown on illicit mobile phones. Indeed, as I write many prisons have introduced new mobile phone detectors and specialist sniffer dogs in response to 13,000 mobile phones and 225kg of narcotics being confiscated in 2016.
Another option is jammers, which uses a signal to block all handsets and SIM cards within its reach from receiving a base station signal-it’s cheap and appears to work when it’s been trialled, but is open to outside interference and blocks everyone’s phone, including the prison staff. Likewise, “grabbing” which attracts phones to a fake network from which phones, and their owners, can be identified and monitored. It’s quantifiable and more sophisticated than blanket jamming but much more expensive.
These options may even work, as a short term, vote winning, hammer and anvil methods, but without a considered approach, inclusive of all those inmates not using mobile phones for violence or drug trafficking, the result will be to simply create another problem elsewhere in the rehabilitation cycle.
As Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson rather pithily put it in a 2016 interview with BBC news “it’s pointless tracking down prisoners using mobiles to call their mum”. But for many inmates that’s all a mobile phone is for; an important link to home, a coping mechanism, and a useful tool in preparing for release. Denying prisoners this will simply lead to more mental health issues within prisons, inmates less prepared for life outside, and as a consequence higher recidivism rates. It’s in all of our interests that inmates retain some link with the society they’re paying penance to.
While it’s clear just allowing inmates access to mobile phones would create far more issues than it resolves, there are some cost-effective and practical alternatives. The first is to allow inmates better access to email and instant messaging services. Admittedly this is open to misuse in the same way as mobile phones, but with one key caveat, it’s far easier to police.
If schools and most offices can regulate the sites their pupils/employees have access to, then why not prisons. It would be relatively simple to allow prisoners regular access to prison computers for emails home and set up a network which blocked everything access to all sites but email account providers.
To those who point out there are simple ways around this through the use of proxies and the dark web, this would be difficult in a prison environment without access to a device with a tor browser etc already installed on it and to be clear we’re talking about the average prisoner. Those who are involved in organised crime on the inside will always find a way, regardless of whether that’s be trained carrier pigeon, drone, or an email account. Besides, with modern data analytics, the prison service might stand a better chance of intercepting gang communication and drug trafficking if it was being conducted via email.
In fact, wider use of email for communication with loved ones is beginning to be trialled in prisons, towards the end of my time in Standford Hill (admittedly a D cat and more likely to trial “softer” measures) inmates had begun to be granted access to email. The rationale for doing so in a D cat was to provide that “link” to home and prepare inmates, who by virtue of being a D Cat were close to release—but the logic also applies in higher category prisons: prisoners in an A or B cat are all the more likely to benefit from communication with the outside world.
The other option is simple: the MoJ could put pressure on prison phone providers to reduce the cost of prison phone calls. In doing so, the reason for using a mobile phone would be removed for the vast majority of inmates using them-from this base point pursuing a crackdown on organised crime makes much more sense.
As for why the MoJ hasn’t decided to kill that particular cash cow, I leave to you.
Written by Rob Stafford and Kreg Mills
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