Stopping criminal activity in prisons with digital intelligence technology

Extraction and analytics technologies are helping corrections facilities access contraband cellphone data to stop crimes inside and outside prison walls


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By Alon Klomek

Those who investigate illicit activities in corrections facilities know all too well that crimes of every type have taken place within prisons since the ancient Mesopotamians incarcerated the first lawbreakers around 1750 BC.

Two things are very different today, however. The diversity of crimes in prisons is expanding and the number of crimes being committed outside prison walls that are being managed and initiated by the prison kingpins inside is growing. Witnesses are being threatened. Victims are being harassed and extorted. And criminal bosses inside are continuing to carry out narcotics and human trafficking operations outside prison walls with impunity.

In this photo made available by the South Carolina Department of Corrections on Wednesday, April 6, 2016, shows cell phones that were seized in a single raid from the Lee Correctional Institution, S.C.
In this photo made available by the South Carolina Department of Corrections on Wednesday, April 6, 2016, shows cell phones that were seized in a single raid from the Lee Correctional Institution, S.C. (Stephanie Givens/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

What’s driving these crimes? Contraband cell phones.

A recent article in Security Magazine notes that the problem with contraband mobile devices in prisons is nearing 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.”

This isn’t just a US corrections phenomenon, either. The article goes on to say, “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.” A recent Forbes article noted that “In January of this year, FCI Miami prison staff confiscated over 50 cell phones in a single day.”

Phones are being smuggled into corrections facilities by visitors, mail, food deliveries, correctional personnel and drones. A Metro News article noted that a flood of lipstick-sized, mini cellphones are finding their way into prisons in the UK by inmates who hide them internally. (This is happening in other countries as well.) Because the phones are made entirely of plastic, they don’t show up on conventional scanners.

Some phone knock-offs are even being manufactured onsite by tech-savvy inmates who have creatively devised crude-but-effective mobile devices.

Utilizing digital intelligence (the data that is extracted from digital sources and data types – smartphones, tablets, computers and the Cloud – and the process by which agencies access, manage and leverage data), is key for corrections leaders to fulfill their mission of maintaining safety and security.

Challenges of contraband cell phones

In the hands of inmates, mobile phones pose an immense security risk for corrections managers and their employees, providing an easy means for inmates to coordinate disturbances, traffic drugs and perpetrate violent acts against other inmates or prison personnel. They also extend the reach of those incarcerated, allowing them to continue to carry on illicit operations beyond prison walls.

Jamming these devices might seem like an easy fix, but it is forbidden under federal law. Even if it were allowed, doing so would render legal devices inoperable, further hampering security measures. Tightening screening procedures and prosecuting visitors and correctional personnel caught smuggling devices into correctional facilities needs to be a priority. But correctional facilities without a solution in place to examine confiscated phones are missing a prime opportunity to put the hammer down on crimes happening inside and outside of their facilities.

With the right digital solutions, the information contained on contraband devices can provide valuable leads to far greater crimes taking place both inside and outside of their facilities. Forward-leaning managers are transforming the way they conduct investigations using digital intelligence (the data on these devices and the devices themselves) to meet these challenges. Here’s how it works.

How technology is helping

Developing a digital intelligence (DI) strategy to transform corrections investigations starts by understanding just how valuable data from contraband phones can be.

In trained hands, today’s innovative DI solutions can surface valuable information from a variety of data sources commonly found on cellphones. Many corrections facilities are incorporating the latest extraction solutions to deal with iOS and high-end Android devices. They are also taking advantage of digital kiosks and portable data extraction tools that provide a single-point extraction – a photo or video clip to expedite investigations. Forward-leaning teams are harnessing the power of modern analytics solutions (powered by AI), which sorts through mountains of data via natural language queries to provide connections between sophisticated criminal networks and key data insights quickly.

However, doing extractions properly to ensure no data is lost and that the chain of evidence is managed and secured properly (just as you would with physical evidence) is key. In this way, compliance is maintained and correctional facilities have a clear audit (that can be presented in court) that tracks the entire evidence trail from confiscation to the courtroom. This requires corrections personnel who are properly trained, but the investment in training can pay rich dividends. And with the variety of live-online, online on-demand and instructor-led courses available, getting personnel up and running quickly is easy.

Even minor extractions can surface startling revelations from:

  • Call records: Who have they been speaking with and what was discussed?
  • Text messages: Are directions being sent to other inmates or those on the outside to conduct illicit activities?
  • Images: What visual evidence is available? Have assaults on other prisoners been captured, which might reveal perpetrators or blind spots inside prisons where bad things are happening outside of surveillance cameras?
  • Videos: Are prisoners keeping a video record of threats or crimes being committed?
  • Social media: Are prisoners posting content that illustrates illicit activities or videos that could be damaging to corrections officials?
  • Emails: Who have inmates been in contact with and why?
  • Apps: Are inmates using What’s App or other communications applications?
  • Cryptocurrency data: Do their devices contain cryptocurrency wallets? Is there evidence that illicit funds are being transferred via Bitcoin? If so, those accounts may be traceable.

Analyzing The evidence

Once data is collected and securely managed, the next step is to analyze the data to identify actionable intelligence.

Even the simplest cellphone extraction can produce copious amounts of data. With modern analytics solutions (powered by AI), however, mountains of data can be parsed automatically to reveal key insights while reducing workloads. Analysts have the power to merge information from disparate mobile, computer, and cloud data sources to clearly see the most sophisticated connections and data insights in a single, visual view. Most important, correctional facilities can be assured that all the digital data is being fully leveraged and securely shared to obtain critical intelligence.

The result is that all the digital data can be fully leveraged and securely shared (when authorized) throughout the investigation to obtain critical intelligence. Analysts can merge information from all of the sources mentioned above, then overlay Cloud data to provide corrections teams with a full picture of data insights in a single view.

DI in action

In a recent case in Germany, correctional facility personnel were looking to track inmate contraband phones under the suspicion of illegal criminal activity. Once the mobile devices were confiscated, the facility accessed 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.

Managing data with collaboration in mind

While a digital evidence management system (DEMS) is key to preserving data integrity, compliance and SOPs, another huge advantage is that it allows stakeholders to access relevant data from various locations within a given facility or between multiple facilities.

Where authorized, data sharing between correctional officers and law enforcement outside of prison facilities grows every day. Such collaboration is extremely important because multiple law enforcement agencies may be tracking, watching, or investigating the same criminal groups without any awareness that another agency is be doing the same thing.

Forming these new relationships and partnerships to deconflict actionable intelligence allows corrections teams and outside law enforcement to work together in a far more coordinated and collaborative manner.

Putting it all together

Corrections managers need an end-to-end digital intelligence solution that includes their own in-house lab facilities to answer the contraband mobile phone challenge. This starts by establishing a simple investigation flow that is effective, efficient and manageable with multiple stakeholders. They also need to be able to get the full picture of how inmates or working together within their facilities and outside. These crime groups are often complex and connected by multiple inmates, which may be located in different facilities. Tying these groups together is often difficult. This is why corrections officials need a unified investigation platform that allows them to access, manage, and analyze data to surface actionable intelligence fast.

Putting platforms like this in place allows corrections facilities to become more self-sufficient while making command decisions easier and data sharing simpler. Most importantly, it puts actionable intelligence in the hands of investigative teams to build stronger cases for prosecutors that ensure cases stick when they’re brought to court.

NEXT: Cellphones in correctional facilities


About the author

With over 20 years of global business management and sales, general management and leadership experience, Alon Klomek leads Cellebrite’s International business, responsible for the entire business activity in LATAM, APAC, EMEA, and UK theatres. He brings extensive expertise in Government (B2G), Telco, banking, security technology, information systems, and sales management, from various regions including the USA, Europe and Asia.

Prior to becoming International General Manager, Alon was EVP of Sales International at Cellebrite, CEO for the eXaudios voice analytics Start-Up, various sales management positions at NICE Systems and VP PMI following NICE – Actimize acquisition. Alon holds an MBA (Hon.) and a degree in business studies from NYU together with a Bachelor’s degree in economics.

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