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Authorities jam illegal phones in prisons

A mobile phone hidden inside a calendar on a cell wall. SF DRS

Jamming equipment is being installed at three Swiss prisons for a trial period to stop inmates making phone calls from their cells using smuggled handsets.

This content was published on May 12, 2005 - 12:09

Prison bosses say there is growing concern that prisoners are using mobile phones to commit crimes, intimidate witnesses and plan escapes.

Switzerland’s prison authorities say the use of illegal mobile phones is on the increase despite their best efforts to crack down on smuggling.

Constantin Franziskakis, director of canton Geneva’s prison service, told swissinfo that it was now almost impossible to stop phones being slipped inside prison walls.

"There is a growing problem with mobile phones in prisons and we do not have any means of controlling them," he said. "They have become smaller and easier to conceal, and they are not picked up by metal detectors because they are made of composite materials," he said.

"One hundred per cent security does not exist. We do everything we can to guarantee security but there are always people who find new ways of avoiding being caught."

Pilot project

Franziskakis said the authorities in Geneva pushed for action after it was discovered two years ago that a mobile phone in Champ-Dollon – one of the prisons involved in the pilot project – had been used to make thousands of calls.

It turned out that the prisoner, whom he described as "dangerous", had allowed other inmates to use the handset in exchange for cash. According to the head of Geneva’s prison service, mobiles phones have now become hard currency among inmates.

"There has been an evolution inside prisons. In the past it was all money and drugs; now we have mobile phones and we have to adapt to this situation," he said.

Marcel Ruf, director of Lenzburg prison, which is also taking part in the trial, has revealed that 30 to 40 phones are found inside the jail in northern Switzerland each year.

Jailbreak

Franziskakis said the Swiss authorities had also been alerted by a spectacular jailbreak from Fresnes prison in France two years ago when a gang used rocket launchers to blow a hole in the walls. A mobile phone inside the jail was used to coordinate the escape.

"If we cut communications, we will prevent prisoners from committing more crimes or intimidating witnesses. We will also reduce the risk of escape," he added.

The pilot project will run for a limited period at Champ-Dollon, Lenzburg and Pöschwies outside Zurich.

It is the result of a joint initiative between the Federal Communications Office (Ofcom), mobile-phone operators and the prison authorities.

Those behind the pilot project say that if it proves successful it could be extended to prisons across the country.

"The aim is to verify whether this equipment works in preventing the use of mobile telephones inside prisons," said Lucio Cocciantelli, the engineer in charge of the project at Ofcom.

"A decision should be taken by the end of the year on whether similar equipment could be installed at prisons throughout Switzerland."

Jamming signal

The equipment is activated when someone inside a prison tries to use a mobile phone. It sends out a 30-second jamming signal to block the call.

According to project leaders, it is designed to jam Global System for Mobile Communications or GSM frequencies and not react to signals from prison officers’ radios or fixed line networks.

One of the aims of the project will be to see whether the jamming signal interferes with other mobile phones in the vicinity of the prisons.

Franziskakis said there were unlikely to be any health risks associated with the project since the power of the signal was lower than those emitted by normal telecommunications antennae.

Jamming devices are already used at prisons in France, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Key facts

Champ-Dollon held an average of 416 inmates last year – an occupancy rate of 154%.
84% of Lenzburg’s 180 prisoners are foreigners.
Pöschwies is Switzerland’s biggest jail, with room for 436 inmates.

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In brief

The Swiss authorities are to install jamming equipment in a pilot project at three prisons to combat the use of mobile phones by inmates.

Prison chiefs say blocking calls is the best way of coping with the problem because it is almost impossible to stop handsets entering prisons.

If the trial proves successful, jamming equipment could be set up at prisons across the country.

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