How digital intelligence tools can stop crime from the inside out

Corrections officers need a mix of technology, trained personnel and data sharing to dismantle criminal networks and activities within their facilities


By Maurice Cook

In December 2020, law enforcement officials in South Carolina as well as the federal government announced the indictment of 40 people involved in a “sprawling criminal enterprise” inside and outside the state’s prison system.

The 147-count indictment, which included murders and kidnappings, highlights the challenges faced by law enforcement and intelligence experts trying to stem crime emanating from prisons – but they face an uphill battle. At the heart of the spread of crime within prisons is the cell phone, which connects inmates from institution to institution within a correctional system, as well as with individuals in the outside world.

Ramping up to a full digital intelligence solution for corrections facilities can lead to broader investigations outside the walls by sharing with other agencies the pipeline of information lawfully collected from contraband phones.
Ramping up to a full digital intelligence solution for corrections facilities can lead to broader investigations outside the walls by sharing with other agencies the pipeline of information lawfully collected from contraband phones. (Getty Images)

“What’s going on outside of the prison walls is directly influencing what’s going on inside the prison walls and vice versa,” said Brian Bolchoz, former deputy director of police services for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. “We’re talking specifically here about devices and technology. Nowadays, inmates on the inside have a direct link to what’s going on outside by way of cellular devices.”

Never mind that just about every prison system in the U.S. bans mobile devices among inmates. Mobile devices find their way into prison cells without much difficulty. During his time with the South Carolina Department of Corrections, Bolchoz saw several thousand cell phones confiscated from about 20,000 inmates each year, which means about half the inmates were in possession of such devices at any given time.

“It’s driving the gang activity through the roof,” said Bolchoz, who now has his own consulting firm. “I know for a fact that in South Carolina we have high-ranking gang members, and they get on conference calls with ranking gang members from other states and hold leadership meetings and board meetings with the gang headquarters and the gang upper leadership, on a regular basis.”

To be sure, there’s plenty of digital evidence to be procured from inmate devices, yet that’s not happening on a broad scale. Structural challenges, like a lack of technology and trained personnel, stand in the way of fighting crime that’s organized from within prisons. We’ve detailed some of those challenges below then followed up with some solutions.

CHALLENGES IN FIGHTING CRIME WITHIN PRISONS

Overwhelming amounts of data

At a time when phones store as much as a terabyte of data, it’s hard enough collecting and analyzing data from a single device. Multiply that by several thousand devices in a given prison system each year – and hundreds more confiscated devices cycling their way in and out – and you begin to see the monumental task that overworked prison law enforcement officers face.

Not enough people power

Even if departments have the technology to collect all that data, they need trained staff to analyze it and decide on a course of action. This isn’t a likely goal for overburdened law enforcement officers, nor do most departments have the funding to add more forensic examiners. If answers to prison crime problems are hidden in data, unfortunately, they may remain there.

Lack of coordination with other agencies

Without tapping into expertise and knowledge-sharing from other agencies, it isn’t easy to make sense of the digital data or find patterns that can help law enforcement officers track down the perpetrators of crimes inside prisons or those on the outside whose actions threaten community safety.

“To me, there has always been a disconnect between law enforcement on the outside and the correctional world,” Bolchoz said. “There’s never really been a great deal of crossover between the two, or a lot of collaboration there.”

Clearly, there are enormous hurdles to overcome in making a dent in the level of crime and conspiracy within prisons. And budget, or lack thereof, hangs over all the challenges above. Prison systems are perennially underfunded even for basics such as corrections officers, so requesting more forensic examiners is probably not in the cards.

But if police forces hope to clamp down on criminal activity in the regions they serve, prisons may need more attention. “We’re now in a situation where people are being sent to prison for committing crimes on the street, only to continue committing those crimes from behind the prison walls,” Bolchoz said. “It was a constant issue in South Carolina – we battled it every day and it remains an issue today.”

Being able to collect and analyze data from cell phones means correctional facilities can:

  • Prevent harm to facilities’ staff by identifying threats and disrupting activities being conducted by inmates inside prison walls, and in the outside communities from which they came.
  • Pull together data into a manageable solution that breaks down silos and integrates information from existing systems across facilities and divisions to expedite the dismantling of criminal networks.
  • Partner with local law enforcement agencies to share intelligence and stop crimes that could potentially affect millions of residents.

Here are some ways in which corrections facilities can crack down on crimes within their walls and work with agencies on the outside to protect communities from crimes being perpetrated by those inside correctional facilities.

SOLUTIONS FOR ADDRESSING PRISON CRIMES

Time-pressed corrections personnel need to dismantle networks and disrupt criminal activities within their facilities. Corrections investigators also need to collaborate with agencies to thwart crimes in outside communities with digital intelligence (DI) that is gathered from devices seized inside. They need a system that controls data sources, automates data processing, allows criminal networks to be visualized and empowers corrections personnel to share data between corrections facilities and with other agencies.

Collecting reams of data is one thing; understanding and gaining insights from digital intelligence is quite another. (Digital intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types – such as smartphones, computers and the cloud – and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations more efficiently.)

Corrections agencies need digital intelligence tools that provide direction and connect suspects to suspects with:

  • Unified communication threads across all channels.
  • Contextual person-card views that provide clarity on people related to the case.
  • A bird’s-eye view of the persons-of-interest map of connections.
  • One coherent flow to review texts, images, videos and documents shared between persons.

They also need the ability to analyze data by:

  • Media analytics with built-in categories to search for specific kinds of information – drugs, nudity, money, screenshots, etc.
  • Text analytics to gain immediate insight into topics detected in text exchanges and files – names, places, sums of money, websites and identifiers.
  • Location analytics to detect various location sources, suspect profiles and case analytics.

Tougher cases involving homemade communications devices or highly encrypted phones can be outsourced to advanced services departments that are equipped to handle all types of devices while providing professional case guidance.

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Ultimately, however, corrections facilities need to ramp up to a full DI solution that leads to broader investigations outside the walls by sharing the pipeline of information they collect with other agencies.

Moving to a comprehensive DI solution would enable each facility to access, manage and analyze data right at their own facility. Such an environment allows investigators to:

  • Collect all relevant data
  • Identify the intelligence within information.
  • Control and share the data in and across agencies.
  • Turn collected data into a complete picture.
  • Provide a deterrent by presence.

Adhering to such an architecture and leveraging the necessary technologies will also:

  • Provide shared access to a centralized evidence-analysis database.
  • Enable intelligence collaboration between corrections entities (investigative offices, corrections officers, task forces, etc.) and outside agencies.
  • Simplify evidence analysis with the use of artificial intelligence and link-analysis capabilities.
  • Control access to all evidence by limiting it to only the appropriate personnel.
  • Simplify training requirements for rotating resources.
  • Reduce storage inefficiencies.
  • Allow integration with existing systems.

TEAMS WITH TRAINING

More boots on the ground would be helpful, but that’s not an easy ask given tight budgets for correctional systems. Even with sophisticated technology in hand, technology is only part of the solution.

“You still need the human element, no matter how good the technology is,” Bolchoz said. “You can extract the data and put it into any program that you want to analyze that data. You can put keywords into programs to build a report for exactly what you’re looking for. But ultimately, it’s still going to come down to needing somebody to determine how important that information is, and where that information needs to go.”

COLLABORATION ACROSS AGENCIES

Information sharing must improve if correctional departments want to accelerate detection and prosecution of prison crimes. In the South Carolina prison racketeering case, a DOJ press release highlights the significance of the case. The release quotes Special Agent in Charge Vince Pallozzi of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Charlotte Field Division as saying, “This was a complex, multi-jurisdictional investigation aimed at taking down an alleged criminal operation of historic reach in our states. The brazen criminal acts charged fueled gun violence and drug trafficking in numerous counties and cities. To shut down this alleged operation is a major win for public safety in South Carolina.”

“Our criminal analysts and investigative agents were in constant contact with the various agencies involved in this case,” Bolchoz said. “We would provide them with the information/intelligence we located, and the investigators and agents from the other agencies would contact us to run information against our databases when they located something of interest. There were also numerous and regular meetings of all the parties to share information and review what had been gathered to determine the significance of the information/intelligence.

“The information-sharing has to be there for outside agencies to be able to get involved on the ground level,” Bolchoz continued. “The corrections departments do have their investigators and [they] have their divisions to investigate crimes. But without the collaboration between the inside investigations and the outside investigations, it can’t come together.”

This cooperation, Bolchoz suggests, could come in the form of a database or analytics practice that spans agencies.

“In the future, I could see a base of people, in corrections and outside, who would use their technology to collect, analyze and disseminate data, with links between agencies,” he said. “If this digital data is accessible by outside law enforcement agencies, those people with expertise can then determine whether it’s something they should investigate more deeply or not – as opposed to the corrections departments trying to do all that on their own.”

NEXT: Key principles of security threat group intelligence operations in jails


About the author

Maurice (Mo) Cook, Vice President Customer Success and Pre-Sales, North America, has 33 years of experience in communications, data center management, and resales solutions engineering. Prior to his current five-year tenure at Cellebrite, he served in technical leadership roles at AT&T, Storagetek, Sun Microsystems, and Oracle. In his current role at Cellebrite, Mo focuses on assisting investigative agencies in leveraging the power of artificial intelligence and big data analytics to bring the power of Digital Intelligence efficiency to their investigative workflows. 

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