ALMOST three years since the crackdown on mobile phones in prisons began, record numbers are being seized.
Speaking at a Garda conference in early April 2007, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell said the prison service had begun cracking down on mobile use and that the first mobile phone blocking devices had been installed in the Midlands Prison.
“I’ve already commenced within the prison system the installation of blocking devices to prevent all mobile phones from being used,” he told delegates at the time.
He said the prison service had sourced a number of blocking systems, had tested them and would be rolling them out. He said he was also introducing legislation making it a criminal offence to possess a mobile phone without the permission of a prison governor.
Offenders dealt with in the district court would face a fine not greater than €5,000 and/or up to 12 months in jail.
Those prosecuted on indictment faced a fine of up to €10,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to five years.
The very day he commenced Section 36 of the Prisons Act 2007, on May 1, notorious armed robber John Daly rang the Liveline radio programme from his cell in Portlaoise.
An apoplectic Mr McDowell ordered an immediate crackdown in Portlaoise and pursued with renewed vigour the introduction of a range of security measures.
These measures included:
nAirport style scanners and X-ray machines, which are now at the entrances of all closed prisons (excluding Arbour Hill and the Training Unit).
nSpecial search teams, or Operational Support Groups, in all prisons.
nMobile phone blocking systems in the Midlands, Mountjoy, Limerick and (until recently) Portlaoise.
Three and a half years on, figures show that the mobile phone trade is still thriving in prisons.
If the current rate continues for the rest of 2009, we are looking at in the region of 2,500 mobile phones being seized.
Worryingly, but not surprisingly, the problem is greatest in those prisons housing convicted members of organised crime gangs and dissident paramilitary groups.
Smuggling continues to be a major problem in Mountjoy despite all the security measures, with 680 seizures so far this year, 100 more than 2008 and likely to pass the record haul of 718 in 2007.
Prison officers have said that Mountjoy continues to have a key security weakness, with phones continuing to be thrown over the exterior walls into the recreation yard.
Prison officers have also criticised the fact that contractors and other workers are able to bring their phones into prisons.
There has been a massive increase in seizures in Portlaoise, which is a maximum security prison, with seizures jumping 150% this year. Prison officers there have criticised lax security measures towards visitors to dissident republican prisoners.
Limerick Prison continues to see a continually high number of mobile phone seizures and this year’s tally is likely to pass last year’s record haul of 292.
The number of seizures in the Midlands has dropped this year. This may be due to the success of the mobile phone blocking system, which is now permanently installed.
But the fact that significant numbers of phones are still being seized, with greater numbers in the latter part of this year, suggests flaws in the blocking system.
A spokesman for the prison service said trials of three different types of mobile phone inhibition systems were in place at three locations: Mountjoy, Limerick and the Midlands/Portlaoise prison complex.
“All three systems are currently undergoing a rigorous evaluation process which includes external independent analysis,” said a spokesman.
“The systems in Midlands, Mountjoy and Limerick Prisons are still live and working with varying degrees of success. The inhibition system at Portlaoise is still under installation and is currently inactive pending further refinement of software which is unique and site specific.”
This is thought to include effects on Portlaoise Hospital, which is across the road from the prison.
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