Jails in England and Wales can seek orders requiring mobile network operators to blacklist handsets and disconnect sim cards
Home Office security minister Ben Wallace said it was ‘totally unacceptable’ for prisoners to orchestrate crimes from behind bars. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA
New powers to cut off illicit mobile phones used by prisoners to run criminal operations have been introduced in jails across England and Wales.
The use of mobile phones by prisoners has long been banned but enforcement measures have so far proved ineffective, with more than 15,000 mobile phones and sim cards recovered in jails last year.
In recent years, one prisoner used his illicit mobile to arrange the murder of a rival gang leader from his cell; another organised huge shipments of cocaine from South America. A third even managed to import a consignment of submachine guns into Britain from Germany.
The new powers, introduced this week, will enable prison authorities to secure civil court orders requiring mobile network operators to blacklist handsets and disconnect sim cards.
The new telecommunications restriction orders contained in the recent Serious Crime Act mean prison governors will no longer have to physically find illegally held mobiles.
Instead, prison authorities will use routine phone-surveillance systems to identify illicit devices being used within their facility. Details will be passed to police so an application for a telecommunications restriction order can be made.
The Home Office security minister, Ben Wallace, said the orders provided the power to disconnect phones used by prisoners to orchestrate serious crimes while in jail. “Criminals are locked up to protect communities from their actions, so it is totally unacceptable for them to continue their life of crime behind bars,” he added.
The measure has also been endorsed by the new justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss. “We are determined to do all we can to prevent prisoners having access to mobile phones,” she said. “We are stepping up measures to find and block them and empowering prison officers to take action. I am determined to make sure our prisons are safe and places of rehabilitation.”
However, the effectiveness of the new powers has been questioned by the former chief inspector of prisons, David Ramsbotham. He told a parliamentary scrutiny committee earlier this year that the installation of technology in every prison in England and Wales blocking the use of all mobile phones would be far simpler and more effective than “passing the buck” to the network operators.
But the Home Office ruled out this option, saying it would cost £300m to install blocking technology in every jail in England and Wales and a further £800,000 a year to maintain it. The introduction of targeted telecommunications restriction orders will cost £3.3m over 10 years.
Lord Ramsbotham also said the new orders could be undermined by people smuggling new sim cards into jails, and suggested that large numbers of court orders would be needed.
Recent cases in which prisoners have used illicit mobile phones include that of Izzet Eren, who arranged from his cell in Wormwood Scrubs for a gang to spring him from a custody van when he was being taken to court. Christopher Welsh ran a massive drug-smuggling operation, while Alexander Mullings masterminded a plot from his Wandsworth cell to import submachine guns.