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Federal prison officials are grappling with how to keep illicit cellphones out of institutions and stop inmates from using the devices that do slip behind bars.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Annual seizures of mobile phones from federal prisoners have more than doubled in recent years as correctional officials try to prevent their clandestine use in drug trafficking and organized crime.

Officials confiscated 137 phones from inmates across the country through the first 10 months of the 2013-2014 fiscal year, according to the latest numbers from the Correctional Service of Canada.

That's up from 51 phones in 2008-09 and 94 devices in 2009-10, figures released under the Access to Information Act show.

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Officials are grappling with how to keep the phones out of institutions and stop inmates from using the devices that do slip behind bars.

"Worldwide, prisons are struggling to deal with the problem of how to keep cellphones out of the hands of inmates," says an internal briefing note prepared for senior Public Safety officials.

New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, France and Mexico are using jamming technology in some prisons, says the March 2012 note, disclosed under the access law. The United States introduced legislation in 2009 to allow jamming in institutions, though the bill died the following year.

"As you are aware, access to a cellphone provided inmates the continuous potential to be involved in criminal activities outside the institution — including drug trafficking and organized crime activities — from within an institution," the note says.

Controlling and monitoring inmate communication is necessary in order to maintain a secure facility and to allow for measures that encourage rehabilitation, the note adds.

"All other types of 'outside access' have necessary limits."

For instance, says the note, the Correctional Service's inmate telephone system allows the service to monitor and control access to telephones that are used to communicate with members of the public.

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Cellphones, on the other hand, permit inmates to "completely and continuously circumvent" the prison service's system.

"Finally, cellphones, especially smart phones, provide inmates unfettered access to the Internet and social media sites, including taking and sending of videos," the note says. "All of the above poses challenges to good corrections, rehabilitation and public safety."

Court records show that at the Mission Institution in British Columbia a cellphone was seized in 2011 from an inmate who was heavily involved in the prison's drug subculture and who had continued to foster links with organized crime.

Correctional Service spokeswoman Veronique Rioux refused to make an official available for an interview.

However, she said in an e-mailed response to questions that the prison service continues to work with phone-service providers and other criminal justice system partners to "monitor advancements in the field of detection of illicit cellphone usage."

The prison service constantly evaluates security equipment and procedures to ensure a safe and secure environment, Rioux added.

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Two years ago, the service posted a tender for a study of solutions to deal with the contraband phone problem.

The Correctional Service "continues to explore potential solutions," Rioux said.

  • inadvertently jamming signals beyond the perimeter of an institution, preventing police, ambulance personnel or fire fighters from using their cellphones;
  • jamming technology interfering in national security investigations by the RCMP or Canadian Security Intelligence Service;
  • effects on human health, as cell-jamming equipment would emit waves similar to those of cellphones;
  • effects on animal species such as bees.
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