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Prison cell jam - Bureaucratic bungling hinders efforts to link phones seized behind bars

- Bureaucratic bungling hinders efforts to link phones seized behind bars to crimes - Gov’t promises to get tougher on devices among inmates; C-TOC investigators can’t wait

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2021 | 12:18 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
File Superintendent Anthony McLaughlin, head of the police’s Counter Terrorism and Organised Crime Branch.
Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre.

They are incarcerated. Some for stomach-churning crimes fitting the most macabre movies.

Yet they wield cell phones at will, recording fights, ‘lavish’ parties and even using them to intimidate and order the deaths of Jamaicans beyond their concrete and metal confines.

Many of them are gang members, particularly from five of Jamaica’s deadliest that the Counter-Terrorism and Organized Crime Unit (C-TOC) has been targeting this year; yet archaic legislation and internal communication criss-crossing continue to slow efforts to link the devices of doom to crimes and their perpetrators on the outside.

“The challenge is that phones are getting into the prisons and they are still being used to orchestrate murders and robberies and other crimes,” said C-TOC boss Superintendent Anthony McLaughlin, who last week listed cell phones in prisons among the more problematic catalysts for reprisals and organised crimes on the island.

“Sometimes it is when we are doing the investigation that we find out someone in the prison is the mastermind; and that is usually when we have an interest in a particular phone,” said McLaughlin.

Despite the common rhetoric, C-TOC is currently probing only two cases linked to cell phone usage in prison, but McLaughlin noted that some cases may be in the hands of the police’s cybercrime unit, usually the first stop for cellular phone/SIM card assessment after prison confiscation.

Clansman, Kings Valley cases

The two C-TOC cases are reportedly related to matters involving the deadly Clansman Gang in Spanish Town, St Catherine; and the Kings Valley Gang, whose stamping ground is in Westmoreland. These gangs are among those the cops deemed most threatening due to their involvement in homicides, rising financial crimes, narcotics and extortion on the island, said McLaughlin.

It was not clear last week whether police outfits get access to and analyse all cell phones detected in the island’s prisons, which, according to one correctional worker, averages about three phones per week.

It was also not clear what is done with cell phones seized from inmates, or whether some 50 phones uncovered in a recent operation at the Spanish Town Adult Correctional Centre in St Catherine, according to Minister without Portfolio Matthew Samuda two weeks ago, have been featured in any criminal investigation.

But even if they were: “The issue that exists now is that there is no criminal offence under the Corrections Act that covers cell phones; so we just use the provision under common law and treat it (cell phones) as a broad contraband,” outlined one C-TOC sleuth, noting that this alternative is often frowned upon by the courts, especially where gang affiliation and criminal conspiracy must be established explicitly.

“When we did our recent large-scale operation in St Catherine, in one day of what was a three-day spread-out search, we would have found over 50 phones in a facility for 800 persons,” Samuda told reporters at a recent Gleaner Editors’ forum.

“Now, since significant staff changes [and] adjustments at points of entries to the prisons have been made, our intelligence have told us that the cost of a call has increased, the cost of the phones have increased, and even the access of ganja has increased within the prisons,” he continued.

“What we have tried to do in this light is to try to prevent the murders. In one particular division, where we have a number of gangs at war, more than 40 murders were intercepted,” added Security Minister Horace Chang, who could not say for certain how many of those murders were thwarted via investigations into prison cell phone usage in Spanish Town.

In the interim, Chang and Samuda said they are looking at bolstering vetting for prison workers and amending the Corrections Act to criminalise cellular usage in particular in prisons.

“The legislation is archaic and colonial and we have to change that and bring it to the Parliament very soon,’’ reiterated Samuda, a promise he has touting since last year.

Last July, Chang said 24 inmates who were deemed to be sending deadly orders from behind bars were to be placed in specially built prison cells, where such high-value criminals “can no longer give instructions. Some will start in a week, then later on, all of them,” said Chang, who did not give an update regarding that programme during the forum.

Not using the phones openly

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) also failed to respond to questions surrounding cell phone seizures in prisons in recent years, and sanctions for inmates and workers found in violation of contraband rules.

But last week, one veteran prison worker at the Tower Street facility claimed correctional officers, for the most part, are equally baffled as to how cellular phones reach inside the facilities, even as Samuda pointed fingers at his colleagues.

“Even though you see the videos online, they (inmates) are not using the phones openly in the prison block. Most of the time, apart from search operations, it is mainly out of luck why we find the phones,” noted the staff member, admitting that staff shortage has led to a breakdown of vigilance in the facility. “Many times those videos are recorded weeks before they make it to social media. By that time, the phones disappear.”

He explained that outside of reporting the incident, which could impact a prisoner’s chances of parole, there is little action correctional staff can take to sanction inmates found with cellular phones.

Such decisions would have to be made by DCS representatives outside the facilities, he explained, adding also that while cell jammers at the prison are working, inmates capitalise on any blind spots and design flaws within the buildings. The controversial cell phone signal jammers were initially purchased by the Government in 2003 at a cost of $8.5 million, but were rendered ineffective in totally thwarting calls months after procurement.

The cases have been numerous in the past decade of gangsters targeting operators inside the Spanish Town bus park or of incarcerated gangsters demanding profits from events from behind bars.