Countering Contraband Cell Phones: An Intelligence-Led Corrections Approach


Mitch Volkart

As prisons strive to provide incarcerated individuals with the necessary tools for successful reintegration into society, they are confronted with an escalating security threat: the relentless proliferation of unauthorized cell phones among inmates. Compounded by the complex prison environment, the prevalence of contraband cell phones undermines facility security and empowers inmates to perpetuate criminal activities from within their cells.

A recent examination of 1,000 contraband cell phones recovered from inmates exposes a disturbing reality: Nearly 50% of these illicit devices have been used in illegal activities, ranging from drug trafficking to financial fraud to the distribution of child pornography. This finding highlights the urgent need for effective solutions to combat the growing influx of contraband cell phones and safeguard the sanctity of correctional facilities.

To address the rise of contraband devices, prisons are increasingly turning to Intelligence-Led Corrections (ILC) strategies and adopting a three-step ILC process of detection, extraction, and analysis.

Step 1: Detection

Detecting contraband devices as part of an agency’s application of ILC is a crucial frontline defense. In this initial phase, correctional agencies employ a multifaceted approach, combining technical and non-technical solutions to identify and seize unauthorized devices.
Performing regular cell searches, employing ferromagnetic devices (metal detectors), and leveraging cutting-edge specialized technology such as cell signal detection devices are among the key strategies used to detect contraband cell phones. By proactively searching for and seizing these illicit devices, correctional staff can prevent the escalation of illicit communication within the facility.

However, it is important to recognize that simply detecting and removing devices without taking additional action will likely result in a cycle of removal and reintroduction. This first step is vital to containing the symptoms, but the next steps find and address the underlying causes.

Step 2: Extraction

Once confiscated, cell phone data needs to be forensically extracted from the device. This crucial process requires specialized personnel capable of both understanding and defeating each device’s security.
In the ever-evolving landscape of cell phone technology, security mechanisms are continually strengthened to safeguard user data and protect against unauthorized access. As contraband cell phones become more advanced in their security features, it is paramount for personnel to collaborate with their peers by sharing information and techniques on data forensics. The importance of shared information and expertise cannot be understated, as it forms the backbone of successful intelligence-led strategies addressing this critical concern in correctional facility security.


Step 3: Analysis

Analysis of the extracted data lies at the heart of the ILC philosophy. The analysis is the crucial phase where specialized personnel trained in data analysis, pattern recognition, and criminal investigations meticulously examine the extracted data. By scrutinizing communication patterns, identifying key players, and detecting potential criminal networks, analysts can paint a comprehensive picture of the illicit activities conducted through these devices.
This detailed analysis is essential for understanding the tactics used by inmates to circumvent facility security and engage in unlawful behavior. It also frequently uncovers the methods used to smuggle the devices into correctional facilities, as well as the people involved. Moreover, the data-driven intelligence derived from this analysis empowers correctional agencies to respond proactively, disrupt criminal enterprises, and implement targeted measures. By curbing the proliferation of contraband cell phones, agencies create safer environments for incarcerated individuals and staff. 
Gathering and analyzing raw data to generate actionable intelligence is critical to ILC. However, in order to conduct an effective analysis, analysts need access to relevant data that may be held by other groups or agencies. Exchanging data has historically been a challenge because of the restrictive “right-to-know, need-to-know” ideology, which does not encourage proactive data sharing. Under this concept, information is only disclosed to the individuals or agencies directly involved in a specific investigation or task. While the goal is to protect sensitive information and maintain the integrity of ongoing investigations, it often leads to information silos and hampered collaboration.

Strong jurisdictional limits for data sharing handicaps analysts. Criminals don’t operate only within set jurisdictional lines. Restricting information on criminals limits analysts’ impact by forcing them to work with incomplete information.

In recent years agencies have made great strides in recognizing their authority and societal responsibility to exchange data proactively, shifting towards the more proactive, “right-to-share, need-to-share” philosophy. This philosophy recognizes that agencies have the right to proactively exchange relevant data and intelligence. It emphasizes the importance of information sharing as a means to enhance overall situational awareness, identify potential safety threats, and foster collaborative efforts in addressing complex issues.


Embracing ILC concepts, using these three steps, and adopting a “right-to-share, need to share” philosophy, can help agencies stay ahead of the ever-evolving tactics used by inmates to circumvent facility security, creating a safer environment for inmates, correctional staff, and the community at large.

Mitch Volkart is a 23 year law enforcement veteran and
current Vice President of Intelligence Solutions for ViaPath Technologies. He possesses a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice and is responsible for the strategic direction of ViaPath’s forensic and security solutions, and ViaPath’s intelligence related services comprised of over 175 analysts nationwide.


Like / Share:
More stories
Where does your jurisdiction stand in the Digital Transition/ Transformation journey?