Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 15:45 UK

How to stop dial-a-crime prisoners

By Chris Summers
BBC News

A man who organised a murder from his prison cell using a smuggled mobile phone faces a life sentence after being convicted. But how easy is it to get phones in jails and what can be done to stop their use?

When Andrew "Sparks" Wanogho was shot dead in a London street in the early hours of 8 April 2006 Delphon Nicholas seemed to have a cast-iron alibi.

The efforts being employed to stop phones reaching inmates

He was in jail.

But the fact he was on remand in Belmarsh prison had not prevented him co-ordinating Wanogho's murder - using a smuggled mobile phone.

In a cold-blooded twist, he even rang Wanogho's phone after the shooting to check his rival was dead.

The phone, along with a charger, was discovered two weeks later during a routine search.

Later, detectives realised Nicholas had been communicating with the gunman, Trevor Dennie.

He had also been making and receiving numerous calls from a female friend, Sereata Barrie.

Miss Barrie, who was acquitted of murder, had told the court Wanogho was coming to her flat to buy drugs and she was unaware of any plot to kill him.

Forensic examination of the phone records showed it had been smuggled into Wandsworth prison in the summer of 2005 and had been used by another inmate, who was transferred to Belmarsh in September.

Delphon Nicholas
Delphon Nicholas organised the murder from his jail cell

In January 2006, Nicholas bought or stole the phone from the other inmate and began using it to call his father and his girlfriend, Louise Hibbert, as well as his co-defendants.

More than 16,000 calls were made from prison, mostly after "lock up", including dozens on the night of the murder.

Nicholas is not the first person convicted of murder from behind bars.

In September last year, Ryan Lloyd was jailed for life for the murder of Liam "Smigger" Smith, who was shot dead outside Altcourse prison in Liverpool in August 2006. Lloyd had used a contraband mobile to call an accomplice.

'Epidemic'

The Ministry of Justice says 3,473 mobile phones or sim cards were discovered in prisons in England and Wales between October 2006 and September 2007.

They are usually smuggled in during prison visits, with inmates inserting them internally, or thrown over jail walls.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, says: "It has become an epidemic now in prisons and, with the exception of a gun, the mobile phone is the most dangerous item they can have.

"It's easy for them to arrange drug deals, intimidate witnesses and even arrange attacks on prison convoys."

In July this year, in response to a review by David Blakey, the former Chief Constable of West Mercia, the government announced an 80m initiative to combat the smuggling of drugs into prisons.

An inmate is searched at HMP Belmarsh
Cells at Belmarsh are regularly searched for contraband

The Ministry of Justice said it would be introducing new scanners by March 2009 to clamp down on the smuggling of mobile phones, which are often linked to drug dealing within prisons.

Body Orifice Security Scanners, or (Boss) chairs, can detect small metallic objects such as mobile phones, knives and gun components, without the need for intrusive strip searches.

But critics say it is naive to imagine mobile phones can be kept out of prison.

Earlier this month Chris Hill, who worked at Swaleside prison in Kent, was jailed for five years after admitting conspiracy to supply drugs and mobile phones to inmates at the jail.

Hill, his brother Richard and convicted murderer Tyrone Woolley, were smuggling in mobile phones, batteries, sim cards and chargers as well as crack cocaine and cannabis.

Jamming devices

One answer could be to introduce mobile phone jamming devices, which would block signals in and around prisons.

The Republic of Ireland began trialling blocking technology at a prison in Portlaoise earlier this year. Now British prisons could follow suit.

Under the Wireless Telegraphy Act it is illegal to block any mobile phone or radio frequency but there is an exemption for agencies of the Crown, such as HM Prison Service.

The government takes the threats created by mobile phones in prisons very seriously and we are committed to tackling and disrupting their use
David Hanson
Prisons Minister

A spokesman for Serco, which runs four prisons in the UK, said: "We'd like to see them fitted in our prisons. There are lots of benefits.

"The use of mobile phones in prisons is a major problem. We have even had camera phones used to take photos of prison officers who can then be intimidated on the outside, and video phones used to extort money and drugs from inmates in live hostage situations."

Witness intimidation

There are also fears witnesses have been intimidated by inmates into changing their stories or not giving evidence at trial.

Howard Melamed, managing director of CellAntenna, a firm with offices in London and Florida, says blocking technology could work in Britain and would be much better and cheaper than trying to stop phones being smuggled inside.

Chris Hill (left), his brother Richard and lifer Tyrone Woolley
Prison worker Chris Hill (left), was among three men convicted of smuggling phones into prison

He told BBC News: "The jamming equipment we make has been used successfully in jails in various countries and costs around 250,000 per prison.

"Prisoners have amazing ingenuity and there is simply no way of stopping phones being smuggled into prison."

Mr Melamed said trials of the equipment showed it could successfully jam signals from inside a prison without affecting reception for innocent people travelling on roads near the jail.

Mr Caton says: "The government is dragging its heels. If the technology is there we should have it. If the phones were of no use in prisons the they would no longer be smuggled inside."

Prisons Minister David Hanson told the BBC: "The government takes the threats created by mobile phones in prisons very seriously and we are committed to tackling and disrupting their use.

"Technology to detect mobile phones or block signals is currently being trialled and used in prisons. This includes hand-held mobile phone blockers and Body Orifice Security Scanners which will be introduced to all prisons from 2009."

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said they planned to introduce phone blocking technology but first had to pass legislation to make mobile phones actually illegal to possess in prison.

Chris.Summers-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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