State Prisons Battling Contraband Cell Phones

States are testing new technologies that jam cell phone signals, detect the phones, and also manage incoming and outgoing calls.

by / January 5, 2011
Thousands of phones like these are confiscated from prisoners by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Charles Manson, the infamous criminal ringleader who ordered others to murder on his behalf, was caught last month with a cell phone he kept stashed under his bed at California’s Corcoran State Prison. There’s no evidence that Manson used the phone for criminal activity, but the incident brought national attention to the growing issue of cell phone use among prisoners.

The nationwide problem has state corrections departments on guard and in search of ways to intercept calls and texts before they’re sent, or better yet, prevent phones from being smuggled into the facilities altogether. Prisoners have been caught working with the outside and scheming with other prisoners to gang up and plan synchronized attacks on prison guards. Last month in Georgia, prisoners e-mailed and texted with inmates at other prisons to coordinate a strike to obtain better prison cell conditions.

A new report released last month by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the FCC and various other federal bureaus investigated three technologies that might be used to control illicit cell phone use. The technologies tested — jamming the signal, managing access to intercept phone transmissions, and implementing detection systems that can pinpoint the location of cell phones — proved successful in preventing incoming and outgoing calls. However, the answer may not be that simple in terms of implementation.

All three types of technologies come with shortcomings, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Furthermore, the cost of implementing such solutions is uncertain and based upon the size and layout of a prison complex, and the facility’s geography. Hardware, software and infrastructure for these systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, vendors say.

What works for one prison might not be the best choice for another. “For instance, a prison located in a rural setting may opt for a different solution than a prison located in an urban area where there is a greater density of wireless communications devices operating nearby,” the report said.

Despite these hurdles, state corrections departments have undertaken pilots of technology that’s designed to curb contraband cell phones. Mississippi was among the first states to incorporate a managed access system last year in the state penitentiary, which houses about 3,000 inmates. The system intercepted 643, 388 calls and texts within a four-month span, according to the state’s department of corrections.

Managed access, which establishes a network around a prison that detects outgoing and incoming calls and texts, may the most promising of the technologies, according the NTIA report, but it may be difficult and costly to implement in larger prison systems.

In Virginia, the National Institute of Justice has “funded the development of an electronic surveillance system to detect the presence of cell phones within a known structure, for example a prison, and pinpoint the location of the cell phone to within a one to two prison-cell area.” This is one example of a detection system for cell phones.

In Maryland, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MDPSCS) has made a $1.1 million investment in security and enhanced technology, including 24 new body orifice security scanners and what the department claims is the nation’s first dog training program for cell phone detection. Within the last year, the department has seen a 32 percent drop in cell phones confiscated, which according to the department, can be attributed to tighter search and seize efforts.

MDPSCS is in the process of figuring out which prevention technologies may be best suited for its needs, Rick Binetti, director of communications for the department, wrote in an e-mail. “Obviously having the ability to use jamming technology would help all prison systems,” he wrote.

Maryland legislators have pushed for legalizing jamming in state prisons — currently it’s only legal at federal levels. When the signal is jammed in the prisons it often interferes with cell phone signals outside the prison, potentially interfering with 911 calls. Some telecom vendors oppose jamming technology, according to the NTIA, and argue that jamming isn’t able to block all cellular communication and would cause unnecessary interference.

“There probably is no one single solution,” Binetti wrote. “These efforts coupled with detection or managed access technologies based on a specific environment is what it takes.”

Although progress has been made nationwide and solutions are being further studied, officials agree it’s unlikely any preventive system will block all cell phone use. In fact, the use of cell phones by prisoners is on the rise, according to the NTIA report. For example, corrections officials in California seized 2,800 cell phones from prisoners in 2008, 10 times more than in 2006.


Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.