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Cellphone Blocking Moves Ahead in California Prisons

California soon will be the first state in the nation to implement a “managed access” system statewide on prison grounds, official says.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) this week announced that it has awarded a contract for two systems expected to eliminate the use of contraband cellphones among inmates and crack down on dangerous communications.

The contract includes the Inmate/Ward Telephone and Managed Access systems, both of which will be implemented by Global Tel*Link. The department initially made plans to develop the Inmate/Ward Telephone system — which will allow inmates to make approved collect calls on pay phones at a reduced rate, and allow multiple payment options for inmates and families — and then added the Managed Access System into the contract to comply with a new state law approved last year that enacted new penalties for unauthorized use of mobile devices at correctional facilities.

The Managed Access System, expected to be functioning at the first institution by the end of 2012, will block cell services such as email, texts, phone calls and Internet access for all cellphone numbers not previously entered into the system as approved devices. The plan includes a cell tower or antenna installation at each state institution, according to the CDCR.

“It provides an umbrella where your telephone number must be on this authorized list in order for it to be passed on to a commercial carrier,” said Tammy Irwin, project manager for both systems. Unlike call jamming, an illegal practice, the Managed Access System has been approved by the FCC and will affect only designated areas on state prison grounds, she said. California is the first state to implement such a system statewide, according to Irwin.

Packaging both systems in one contract is intended to address the safety issue of prisoners increasingly using unauthorized cellphones, and the move allowed the CDCR to consider a solution that would cost the state nothing extra.

Global Tel*Link is installing the infrastructure for the cellphone blocking technology at no additional charge, in return for revenue generated by the new inmate call system. The project will provide entirely new hardware for the pay phones. Officials anticipate more pay phone usage by inmates via the concession-based contract. “The thought then is that there would be enough concession or revenue to offset any cost of the vendor to deploy the Managed Access System,” said Joe Panora, director of enterprise information services for the CDCR.

Panora added that the plan is a “win-win, creative way for us to address this issue” of cellphone use in state prisons.

“Contraband cellphone usage has been a growing problem for corrections for a long time,” Panora said, adding that it’s a public safety problem that impacts everyone — from former crime victims to state prison workers.

The number of unauthorized, contraband cellphones found in California state prisons has jumped from 1,400 in 2007 to 15,000 in 2011. Prison officials across the country are starting to address the public safety problem presented by the trend.

“This is something that throughout the United States people are going to be looking at our benchmarks and our success here,” Panora said.

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