On the phone, inside

In a way, cellphones allow inmates to walk through bolted doors and bound over prison barriers.

January 30, 2010 22:45
3 minute read.

cellphones 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The primary purpose of prisons is neither to punish convicts nor to rehabilitate them. It is to distance them from society and thereby protect us all from further harm for given periods. This should be clear and uppermost in law enforcement’s priorities. But is it? Are our prisoners indeed as separated from the citizenry as we suppose they are?

Not by a long shot.

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Our public discourse has been dominated for days by reported threats against the housekeeper who sued Sara Netanyahu. These furiously churned the rumor mill and fuelled speculation ranging from cynical manipulation by the plaintiff to unbridled intimidation by the Netanyahus or their agents.

Nobody imagined that the threats might have embarrassingly originated right under the authorities’ noses. But it seems that they did – from Hadarim Prison in the central Sharon, supposedly one of the most closely supervised and tightly controlled spaces in the country.

Being under lock and key was apparently no impediment to arch-swindler Oren Avraham, 36, from Ramle. Although serving a 16-year term for assorted frauds, he has hardly remained inactive. For years Avraham has used the telephone to bedevil the system. At first, he utilized prison pay phones. In time his access to them was curtailed, although the Supreme Court later obliged the authorities to reinstate Avraham’s rights. Ever resourceful, Avraham preferred a switch to cellphones as these proliferate (albeit illegally) behind bars and offer greater versatility.

His antics ranged from identity theft and credit card fraud to a variety of pranks. During Binyamin Netanyahu’s first prime-ministerial stint, inmate Avraham ordered 20 pizzas and had them delivered to a cabinet session. He paid for them with the credit card number of the prime minister’s bureau chief. He also left messages for ministers to call each other. And he quite easily procured information from banks and public institutions, enabling him to make quite a deal of money while presumably out of commission.

But he is not alone. Indeed Avraham’s case, while calling attention to the travesty, is probably one of the more lightweight of its sort. Just as he got hold of assorted communications devices (including beepers), so do more dangerous, far bigger fry. Notorious underworld headliners continue running their empires from the “inside.” Some are even said to be meting out their own brand of justice while serving out their sentences. In certain cases, they intimidate witnesses, wreak vengeance on informants and even commission organized-crime executions from their cells by using cellphones.


An even more sinister use of cellphones inside is made by convicted terrorists. Just last week Maj. Munir Halabi, a section commander in Ketziot Prison, was indicted for smuggling phones for financial remuneration. A court document has noted that “it is no secret that terrorist groups keep operating from within Israeli prisons and even coordinate new atrocities. Therefore, smuggled cellphones in prisoners’ hands pose no less than an acute security threat.”

Yet this realization hasn’t resulted in vigorous counteraction. Indeed, often the illicit phones are hardly concealed. Convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti, for example, openly gives frequent phone interviews and conducts extensively publicized political activity by phone from his cell.

To be sure, this problem isn’t unique to Israel. But it is outrageously widespread here.

It can be stemmed without necessarily engaging in Sisyphean searches for each item of contraband equipment. Scanning systems are available (like ITT’s Cell Hound), that use an array of sensors to detect cellular phone activity.

A still simpler antidote is to electronically jam prison complexes. The wardens can use alternative communication methods or wavelengths. And jamming nowadays can be very effectively pinpointed, without disrupting communications outside the prison. In the US there are legal constraints on jamming (from 1934). No comparable limitations exist here. The laxity in our prisons is patently inexcusable.

Oren Avraham’s chronic hoaxes may be regarded as comic and little more than more egg on the system’s face, though the potential damage to the Netanyahus’ reputation had he not been swiftly tracked down could have been considerable. But the slackness his case highlights can cost lives. It enables the worst of the bad-guys to, in some cases literally, get away with murder while doing time.

In a way, cellphones allow inmates to walk through bolted doors and bound over prison barriers. Their current widespread availability behind bars can make mockery of incarceration.

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