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Contraband Cell Phones Still Epidemic in California Prisons

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California, unlike the federal Bureau of Prisons and many other state correctional departments, does not routinely search prison employees on their way into work, according to Michael Montgomery of California Watch.

Montgomery writes:

At issue is a two-year program – known as Operation Disconnect – that requires all adult prisons to conduct monthly searches of employees and others as they enter state facilities. 

Fewer than 500 cell phones have been confiscated under the program, though some lawmakers still suspect prison employees are the main suppliers of cell phones that are reaching inmates in ever-larger numbers.

But Joe Baumann, a chapter president with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the modest results suggest the program is targeting the wrong people.

“Staff are just a small part of the problem,” he said. “If an employee is dirty, word gets out pretty quickly.”


However, state Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, says, "We have seen a 38 percent increase in the number of cell phones found in prisons in the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year. Given those numbers, I cannot say the department is doing a good job stopping cell phones from getting into prisons.”

Back in December, the news that Charles Manson was making calls and sending texts from his prison cell using a smuggled LG flip phone began making the rounds.

As to why Manson was using the device, Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know, but it’s troubling that he had a cellphone since he’s a person who got other people to murder on his behalf.”

This is not a new problem. Prison inmates have used contraband mobile phones for years, which, behind bars, range in price from $300 for a low-end device to $1,500 for an iPhone or BlackBerry, to direct and carry out criminal activity from behind bars in ever-increasing numbers.

Captain Robert Johnson, a South Carolina corrections officer, survived a shooting at his home which was planned by an inmate using a smuggled cellphone.

Patrick Byers, a Baltimore man awaiting trial on murder charges, used a smuggled cellphone to order the execution of Carl Lackl, a witness scheduled to testify against him in court.

Richard Tabler, a Texas death row inmate, used a smuggled cellphone to call state senator Richard Whitmire, chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Committee, and threaten his daughters’ lives.

“I want to know how an inmate on death row gets a cellphone in the first place, and then how they and other inmates can make thousands of calls in a month without getting caught,” Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman.

While it would be foolish to pretend staff don't bring at least some of the contraband phones into prison facilities, here's the real root of the problem:

In August 2010, the Cell Phone Contraband Act (S. 1749) was passed. It adds one year to the sentences of federal prisoners caught with cellphones. However, in California -- where Charles Manson currently resides as a guest of the state -- inmates found in possession of a cellphone can only be charged with a rules violation, leading to a loss of privileges. Why? California’s prisons are so hopelessly overcrowded, a panel of federal judges ordered a reduction of the inmate population by 46,000. Thus, the California Senate Public Safety Committee put in place a policy prohibiting new felonies from being added to the state penal code, so as not to risk further adding to the overcrowding.

So, cellphones keep flowing into state prisons -- hidden inside footballs thrown by accomplices into recreation yards, brought in by visitors, and, more alarmingly, sold by unscrupulous guards who can make thousands of extra dollars per year this way.

In October, South Carolina Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, along with 32 other public officials, asked for permission to use signal-jamming devices to render cellphones useless behind prison walls.

Signal-jamming devices are used in New Zealand, France, Ireland, and India, among other countries. And state prisons would like to follow suit. But the federal Communications Act of 1934, written well before anyone had so much as heard of a cellphone, makes it illegal for any entity other than the federal government to block radio signal broadcasts.

Updating the 75 year-old rules would seem to be a good place to start in the name of public safety, though the Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA), boasting a membership made up of every big name in the industry like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint Nextel, pointed out to the FCC that only Congress is authorized to do so.

CTIA, which is led by Steve Largent, former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and Congressman who sat on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, has gone to great lengths to preserve its grip on its members’ turf. Last year, when Washington, DC Department of Corrections director Devon Brown requested an informational demonstration by jamming equipment manufacturer CellAntenna, CTIA filed a petition with the US Court of Appeals, that read:

Operation of such ‘jamming technology’ is flatly illegal under Section 333 of the Communications Act, and the commission lacks the statutory authority to authorize violations of this congressional directive protecting the rights of authorized users of the wireless spectrum. Moreover, the decision to authorize the demonstration -- made without notice to the public or affected parties, without opportunity for comment, without consideration of any evidence regarding the potential consequences to legitimate transmission of operating the contemplated technology, and with no exigent public-safety need -- is the very essence of arbitrary and capricious decision-making.
Ozmint says the industry is simply “profit-hungry” and that “They would rather continue to allow inmates to make hits on cell phones than they would to sacrifice the profits they’re making on those pre-paid minutes.”

Still, the wireless lobby holds firm on its stance. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, VP of regulatory Affairs at CTIA, maintains:

"While we believe that prisoners should not have access to wireless phones while incarcerated, there are other, non-interfering and legal ways to find and take the phones out of their hands. There are several companies that provide wireless detection systems that can be used by jails to identify and confiscate phones, and that do not interfere with wireless communications. As the FCC previously acknowledged, Congress has been clear in prohibiting the use of jammers in state prisons."

In fact, there are several companies in the wireless detection business, which allows cellphone signals to be identified electronically, after which the devices can be confiscated. There is also something called “managed access,” which is the telecom industry’s favored method, claiming it works more precisely than signal jamming and won’t interfere with authorized communications -- a matter vigorously disputed by Ozmint and CellAntenna CEO Howard Melamed.

Managed access is also quite a bit more expensive than jamming, and directly benefits CTIA member companies like Tecore Networks, which sets up and runs managed access systems. Mississippi’s Parchman Farm penitentiary is the first in the United States to implement the technique, using Tecore's "Intelligent Network Access Controller."

Urgent Communications magazine reports, “… in the first 29 days of deployment at the facility, the system thwarted 216,320 communications attempts,” according to Tecore COO Bruce Portell. The same article points out that “Inmates’ inability to call using contraband cell phones is expected to result in more inmate calls over the corrections facility’s monitored wireline phone system.”

Mississippi prison spokeswoman Suzanne Singletary noted that “the system didn't cost taxpayers anything.” And it didn’t -- it was fully funded by a company called Global Tel*Link.

Global Tel*Link provides landline service to 40% of prison inmates nationwide. Interestingly enough, that same article in Urgent Communications points out that, “...Global Tel*Link reported a 22% increase in attempted wireline calls and a 16% increase in revenue for the month since the managed-access system was deployed.”

Well, uh...gee.

Anyway, South Carolina’s Ozmint finally decided to test a similar system, saying, “We're desperate, we’ll try anything.”

Unfortunately, he discovered that, like jamming technology, managed access could also run afoul of federal law.

“The pen register [the registry of numbers called] of the cell phone is automatically captured, and the ability exists to record and listen in to conversations,” Ozmint said. “And from the inmate's perspective, we'd be allowed to listen in. But there’s potential for violating the Pen Register Act and federal wiretap statutes.”

Texas has also shut down a planned managed access trial program, after state prosecutors voiced concerns over the same issue. Senator Richard Whitmire, the lawmaker whose life was threatened via smuggled cellphone, would like to see a blanket zero-tolerance policy enforced in the state’s correctional facilities, but a $21 billion budget shortfall makes funding for such an initiative difficult to come by.

Frustrated, he’s clearly running out of options.

“Texas ought to jam cellphones in our prisons and dare the federal government to do something about it.” Whitmire says. 

While they’re at it, perhaps Texas might issue a dare to the CTIA, as well.
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