Prisoners' calls to be monitored by AI to curb extremism and organised crime

Mason Boycott-Owen
·3-min read
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Prisoners’ phone calls are to be monitored by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a bid to stop terrorists and gangland bosses continuing their criminality from jail.  

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is trialling new technology to sift through the 64 million calls a year made by offenders from prison phones in order to better spot and then target organised criminality and extremism.  

The technology records, transcribes and searches for key words or patterns in phone conversations chosen at random or selected because of suspicions around particular crime kingpins or terrorists.  

Current checks are carried out by trained prison officers with headphones sitting and listening to live or taped calls which is expensive and labour-intensive given that the 64 million calls a year generate some four million hours of call data across more than 110 prisons in England and Wales.  

The AI or machine learning software would enable more calls to be checked while also filtering the hours of recordings to help officers listen only to those identified as the most suspicious.  

It would also provide a database of transcripts that could be accessed and searched by other law enforcement agencies and police to help investigate serious and organised crime or radicalisation by prisoners from the inside.  

A source told The Daily Telegraph: “We have piloted and are continuing to develop software that will enable us to record and monitor calls. It is very much part of ongoing work to combat serious and organised crime and extremist behaviour in prison.”  

Prison governors are by law allowed to record and monitor designated or randomised calls except those by prisoners to exempted people such as their lawyers, MPs or officials at the Criminal Case Review Commission.

It is thought as few as one in 50 calls are currently monitored.  

The MoJ has spent £10 million in the past two years expanding in-cell phones to nearly half of the jails in England and Wales in a bid to stem the flow of illegal mobiles, maintain family ties and reduce tension on prison wings. It has also used mobile phone blocking technology, driving more to use official phones.  

US prisons already deploy AI technology which, in one case, spotted the phrase “three-way” regularly cropping up in conversations.   

Officers initially thought it was a sexual allusion, until further analysis established it was code for illegally bringing a third person onto a call from an inmate.

Prisoners are only allowed to call designated people or numbers.   The AI industry claims the technology reduces the cost a thousand fold, to little more than four pence an hour.  

“It is going to be cheaper than what takes place at the moment,” said an industry source developing the technology. “These are highly trained prison officers who are listening into these phone calls, when actually they could be better served in the jail itself.   

“If you introduce a system, which can listen to every phone call, or list every phone call, which is not legally privileged, and monitor it for key words and phrases, and patterns we only need you to listen to these 30 calls today. That actually enables you to do more monitoring with fewer people.”  

An MoJ spokesman said: “We are exploring ways in which we can improve the monitoring of calls. This will boost our efforts to thwart extremist activity and serious organised crime behind bars – and could ultimately lead to more convictions and more protection for the public.”