Tapping into prison phones

February 6, 2012

It is probably impossible to imagine a more complicated proposal to fight drug traffickers than the one put forward by authorities during the weekend. Certainly, it could serve as the plot for a movie or Sunday evening soap opera comedy. The source of the plot is Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, but there are numerous other players.

In short, security officials are upset about drug dealers who continue to operate even after they have been put into prison. Mr Chalerm thinks _ and others seem to agree _ that there should be an operation mounted to tap the conversations on illegal phones. But first, he must overcome strict laws that forbid secretly listening to phone conversations.

The problem of influential criminals who use smuggled mobile phones in prison is as old as the cell phones themselves. The ability of certain convicts to continue criminal enterprises behind prison walls has been a continuing story in this newspaper and in all Thai media for many decades. The root of the problem is simple. Corrupt warders and guards enable certain convicts to smuggle phones and other contraband in exchange for money or favours.

Mobile phones are a small symptom of the continuing culture of corruption in the country’s prison system. Last week, authorities locked down Bang Kwang Central Prison in Nonthaburi for a search of cells and common areas. They found tens of thousands of baht in cash, drugs, gambling paraphernalia and 39 mobile phones. One prisoner had a rather luxurious cell, including a TV set, while another had installed a small but impressive kitchen and larder. All of this was illegal. The money and stashes were confiscated, but no one doubts re-stocking of the seized material was under way within a day.

Mr Chalerm, who has emerged as leader of the Pheu Thai government’s anti-drug measures, took up this issue of phone-enabled drug dealers last week. He merely stated the obvious, that traffickers were using smuggled phones to direct their smuggling and dealing from inside prison. But the weekend surprise was his suggestion of a new task force that would get special permission to try to tap the phone circuits in and out of prisons, and get more information on the drug dealers involved. Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, indicated that the DSI could do that, if assigned.

Mr Chalerm did not mention the late Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg but he surely deserves some credit. Goldberg formulated wildly complicated machinery to perform simple tasks. Mr Chalerm, instead of detecting and seizing illegal mobile phones, seems determined to go through unnecessary and costly measures to accomplish even less. And before he begins, he has to announce to the nation, including the drug dealers involved, that a complicated justice request is necessary.

There are simpler ways. For example, the Corrections Department last year conducted a test of a US-made cellphone detector called the Wolfhound.

It is a simple, hand-held device that costs 50,000 baht. The demonstration showed it can and did detect 10 mobile phones at the Bang Kwang prison in 30 minutes, including through concrete walls. Wireless devices can be fairly easily detected through their radio frequency energy.

Mr Chalerm and others like Mr Tarit may need a strategy that bypasses the main prison system and its ingrained corruption. But there are easier, less complicated ways than a big phone-tapping agency. The rules against wire-tapping are there for a reason, and should stay. There are other, simpler tactics that can be used against continuing criminal activity inside prisons.

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