‘Hack-proof’ mobiles confiscated 2000 times in Scotland’s prisons during pandemic

PRISONERS have had mobile phones confiscated almost 2000 times since the start of the pandemic, according to new data.

Information obtained from the Scottish Prison service shows that since May last year, offenders had phones temporarily removed 1889 times as a result of misusing them.

It comes after government-issued mobiles were given to prisoners in early 2020 due to the lockdown and lack of personal contact with family.

Former Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf spent £2.7m on 7,500 supposedly tamper-proof handsets, yet prison officers said criminals had figured out how to hack them within hours of them being issued.

Whistleblowers said the devices were then being used to sell drugs and continue illicit activities from behind bars, dialling unsanctioned phone numbers after being tampered with.

READ MORE: Prison boss challenged over ‘hacked’ phones used by inmates to buy drugs

Organised gangs were also reported to have been targetting fellow inmates and obtaining their mobile phones to use illegally.

Prison officers say it is impossible to detect which mobile phones have been hacked just by looking at them, and so the true number of phones which have been tampered with is unknown.

According to data obtained by the Scottish Conservatives, prisoners in Barlinnie in Glasgow had mobile phone use restricted 346 times since May 2020 – the highest number of all Scottish prisons.

This was followed by HMP Edinburgh (262 times), and HMPs Greenock and Addiewell (191 times each). At HMP Kilmarnock, mobile phone use was restricted only once in the last 18 months.

Prisoners who are found to have misused phones – either they have not been given permission, using another person’s phone, using a phone which has been smuggled into prison or failing to return mobiles when asked – are given a temporary ban for a month.

The phones are then returned after a review by prison governors.

The Scottish Conservatives have called for the devices to be removed entirely from offenders, arguing they are causing significantly more problems inside and out of prison when they end up being misused.

HeraldScotland: Russell Findlay MSP has called for the phones to be removed entirely Russell Findlay MSP has called for the phones to be removed entirely

Previous information obtained from the prison service revealed that around 10% – 728 – of the 7500 government-issued phones had been found to have been used with illegal sim cards since August 2020.

However one prison officer at HMP Barlinnie estimated around a third of phones had been tampered with.

John McTavish told ITV News in September: “You give a prisoner a phone, and they’re very, very ingenious. If they put their mind to something, they can do anything at all. Within hours, the tamper proof was gone.”

Russell Findlay, the Scottish Tories Shadow Community Safety Minister, has appealed directly to current Justice Secretary Keith Brown to remove the phones.

The Central Scotland list MSP said: “This scheme was introduced in good faith at the start of lockdown but it has become a farce.

“These supposedly un-hackable handsets were compromised almost immediately yet this was kept secret from the public and MSPs.

“It is absolutely right that prisoners should have access to their families, but this ill-conceived scheme has back-fired badly.

“Keith Brown dithered over our demands to stop drug-soaked prison mail before finally introducing new security measures.

“It is now time for him to recall Humza’s handsets. They must be withdrawn immediately and permanently, and any replacement must be safe and secure.”

The Scottish Government would not commit to removing the handsets, and said the issue was “ an operational matter” for the Scottish Prison Service.

They also said the figures highlighted that the misuse of phones was an issue that was being taken seriously by officials, and handled appropriately.

A spokesman said: “While primarily an operational matter for the prison service, the provision of mobile phones, in the absence of in-person contact over sustained periods of time, has been vital in addressing the negative impacts of COVID-19 in our prisons – for staff, prisoners and families impacted by imprisonment.

“The vast majority of phones issued have been used as intended and – as these figures clearly show – where any breach of the rules takes place this is treated seriously by the prison service.”

The SPS was contacted for comment.

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