Accessing contraband phone data—the key to fighting crime in corrections facilities


One in three. That is the ratio of cellphones confiscated for every three inmates by South Carolina corrections officers, ranking them number one in the US for contraband mobile devices inside prison walls. Oklahoma is right behind where one phone was confiscated for every six prisoners. High percentages of illicit mobile devices aren’t just a US phenomenon, however. 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.

Contraband phones, smuggled into corrections facilities by inmates, visitors, mail, corrupt prison employees, and even drone drop-offs are causing major problems. Threats to witnesses, contract killings, extortion, and drug trafficking are among the crimes being committed by criminals using contraband phones to direct illicit activities both inside and outside of corrections facilities. A recent online article posted by Security Magazine points to the seriousness of the problem:

  • In the United Kingdom, inmates have run a cocaine ring, arranged the murder of a teenager as part of a feud, and organized the killing of a gang leader.
  • In 2018, federal prosecutors said two inmates used smuggled cellphones to run a violent, drug-dealing street gang from inside California’s super-maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison.
  • South Carolina officials blamed a prison riot that killed seven inmates in April 2018 on a turf war between gangs over territory, money, and contraband items such as drugs and cellphones.
  • Contraband cellphones have been linked to coordinated attacks on prison officials and other illegal operations. A South Carolina Department of Corrections officer was shot six times after a hit was put out on a contraband phone.
  • Fifteen prisoners housed in the North and South Carolina Departments of Corrections were charged in a “sextortion” ring, in which they used contraband cellphones to target U.S. military service members.”

The Challenges

Stopping the influx of contraband phones would seem as easy as stepping up search-and-surveillance protocols, but corrections officials are discovering it’s not that simple.

Devices conceal easily: Mobile devices are compact by design and newer lipstick-sized versions made entirely of plastic are undetectable by conventional scanners.

Knock-offs are an extraction nightmare: Creative types serving time have developed a number of homemade communication devices. They may be crude, but they get the job done. And because they don’t use conventional software, extractions are difficult to perform.

Damaged phones: Inmates many times try to destroy phones rather than give up operational devices that might incriminate them, making extractions even more difficult.

The time factor: In many cases, time is of the essence to extract actionable intelligence because a connection inside prison walls could lead to stopping criminal offenses—human and child trafficking, drug trafficking, gang-related crimes, child pornography outside—outside corrections facilities. This places even more pressure on corrections personnel who may lack the proper tools and training to gather all of the available evidence from phones.

The information contained on these devices, however, can prove invaluable.

Contraband Phones Hold the Key to Crime Networks

Being able to access Digital Intelligence (DI)—data that is extracted from digital sources and data types—smartphones, computers, and the Cloud—and the process by which agencies access, manage, and leverage data—is the key to cracking down on both the number of illicit phones used by inmates and the crimes they are committing.

E-mails, text messages, video clips, photos, geolocation data, cryptocurrency information (wallets and transaction information) gathered from contraband phones can provide valuable evidence in stopping crimes both inside and outside corrections facilities, while providing the ability to trace deadly crime networks across state and international boundaries.

Gathering data quickly without compromising the chain of custody while ensuring compliance is critical. This is why many corrections agency managers are transforming the way they conduct contraband phone investigations by developing a solid DI strategy.

Building A Digital Strategy for Corrections

The best DI strategies are built around three pillars:

Collecting all relevant data from all the available data sources uncovered at the prison or during a corrections investigation in a forensically sound manner that preserves data integrity and ensures compliance.

Controlling and Sharing data in and across agencies, while managing the access so that the right people get the right information at the right time.

Providing the Complete Picture by turning collected data into actionable intelligence to move investigations forward.

Having the right tools and trained personnel to access, manage, and leverage data to its fullest extent is providing a complete DI solution that corrections agency managers can utilize to stop crimes inside their walls while providing a pathway to curtailing criminal activities outside.

Key Benefits

DI solutions ensure that corrections agency managers can access digital devices in a timely manner, by merging their technological and organizational capabilities.

Technological capabilities: Include best-in-class extraction tools that make accessing data quick and easy. Powerful analytics solutions, powered by AI, that connect disparate pieces of evidence to provide a complete picture of the investigation.

Organizational capabilities: Training so that officers at every level are empowered to tackle the access challenges independently. Secure processes, operations, and chain of command that allow for seamless collaboration.

Next Steps

Once you’ve accessed the data and insights, how do you securely manage the data and evidence along the chain of custody and investigation workflow? We’ll tackle the data management challenge in our next blog.

Learn More

Want to learn more? Join our webinar to discover how Cellebrite’s Digital Intelligence solutions for corrections can help your organization.

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