No buts about it: Inmate cell phone use up

January 31, 2009
Cereal boxes have been used to smuggle cell phones to state prison inmates. Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections

Cereal boxes have been used to smuggle cell phones to state prison inmates. Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections


In agony from abdominal cramps, the California Men’s Colony (CMC) inmate was bent over groaning when correctional officers discovered him, and though initially reticent, the man finally confessed to smuggling. He had a contraband cell phone and its charging unit in his rectum.

Surgery was required, but that kind of solution won’t help state officials now wrestling with an exploding surge in cell phone possession by inmates of California’s state prisons. Last year alone, more than 2,800 cell phones were confiscated from inmates in the system, recipients of ever more clever methods developed to bootleg the devices into the hands of felons. One favored technique uses cereal boxes headed for prison commissaries for concealment.

The problem has become so pervasive that a “Wardens’ Advisory Group” has been formed by the California Department of Corrections (CDC) in an attempt to stay current with evolving high technology, and rapidly-adapting low-tech smuggling.

John Salazar, warden at Chuckawalla State Prison, chairs the group, which uses staff help and assistance from private industry technology advisors.

Local correctional officers “have found a few, not many” of the cell phones, said Lt. Dean Spears, public information officers for the Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. “But it’s a big security issue statewide.”

Cell phone interdiction behind bars is the warden group’s elusive objective, said CDC spokesman Paul Verke.

“Contraband cell phone use is a problem we’re looking into from all angles,” he said this week. “The wardens are examining all new interdiction technologies related to detection and blocking cell phone signals. It’s something we take very seriously. Cell phone use by inmates poses a security risk because it circumvents the monitoring systems used by prisons.”

Verke said cell phone use by prisoners is a growing national problem. And he cited the wide variety of cell phone utilizations that modern equipment now provides, along with a virtual cornucopia of opportunity for clever inmates with lots of time on their hands.

Normally, all communications in and out of a prison are monitored and often recorded. But with illicit cell phones, conversations can bypass ears of officials, and users can receive and transmit video images and text messages. The phones can also be used to access the Internet, and then to blog on Web sites.

A primary concern, said Verke, is that cell phones on the inside can be used to commit crimes on the outside, such as intimidating witnesses and running drug rings. They also create a new means of contact between prisoners, both in the same institution and elsewhere, and can even be used to organize ongoing criminal conspiracies.

“Also, it is possible to use the phones to affect prison equipment,” Verke added. “This is quite serious.”

Contraband phone units, both complete and in parts, have been discovered hidden in food products headed for prison kitchens. And for every innovative methods of smuggling that officials discover, two new ones evolve in the imaginations of felons. Prisons in more populated areas tend to attract more smuggled cell phones.

Technology for communicating, however, is far advanced to technology for foiling communication. Cell phone jamming devices do exist, and are often used by law enforcement. However, the devices don’t work well over long distances, or through thick walls such as those found in prisons. So it is not just a case of turning on a “jammer” and solving the problem. The devices affect all cell phones and radio-wave devices, even those being used by prison employees.

But jamming technology is what likely will address the issue with success.

These devices transmit a powerful signal on the same frequency as cell phones, and at high power. The signal crashes into the cell phone’s incoming and outgoing signals, confusing and overwhelming them. However, cell phones are designed to automatically adjust signal power to deal with just this kind of contingency. Jammers must be programmed to recognize this and modify.

Jammers are made with numerous appearances; some look like cell phones, others like briefcases.

Jammers’ use in the United States by private citizens is illegal under the Communications Act of 1934, despite their ready availability from Internet sources for a couple of hundred dollars. Use of the devices is viewed by law as property theft, because jamming the radio spectrum is stealing property from the cell phone service provider. It’s the job of the Federal Communications Commission to enforce the law, violation of which could result in fines up to $11,000, or year-long imprisonment for a first offense.

According to CDC’s Verke, no contraband phones have been discovered in the possession of Death Row inmates.

For the present, though, cell phone smuggling through the back door of state prisons shows no sign of tailing off, even as officials search for a way to plug the insistent flood. But… it won’t be easy.

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By: R_Cubed on 2/26/09

If any of you know what prisoners are allowed, you might understand. Did you all know if an inmate has begun a transformation from Male to Female, he/she must still be provided his hormone shots in prison? And guess who pays for it…YOU and YOUR taxes! How about their 'special visits'? Right again, they have time in an apartment like setting to relax, converse and have time with their families. And last the inmates who are same sex orientated also have their own housing units to 'protect' them but guess what else? They live with their 'husbands/wife's. They enjoy TV, food, sex and so much more you wouldn't even guess. I suggest the movie "Body of Lies" and see just what can be done with cell phones…

By: berkeleygirl on 2/3/09

I just want to point out that inmates' families do not have it easy. The visits, which inmates and family have a RIGHT to enjoy, are also a benefit for all of society because the visits promote healthy family relations, which in turn lowers recidivism. Trust me, the visits are not the reason that contraband is in prisons. The visitors are put through a lot just so that they may visit. They wait for hours in the waiting room to get their turn. They must pass through a sensitive metal detector and adhere to a strict, ever-changing dress code. Please have some respect for the innocent children and other loved ones who go through so much to spend some time with their incarcerated family member.

By: b_wildered on 2/2/09

Black_Copter_Pilot, I think your wrong about Susan1union1 being a CO or shacking up with one, but I think your on the right track, from other comments I've read of hers on other articles, she's definitely an inmate lover or a relative of an inmate, and evidentily a union rep to boot. So I'm sure she works to get all those corrupt staff members off for doing illeagal things for the inmates, like bringing them cell phones. How do they ever expect to stop the cell phones from getting in when the COs don't check the staffs bags thoroughly when they come in. Staff bring in their personal cell phones into the prison all the time, either by accident or on purpose, for their own personal use, and those don't get found, so they can easily make it into the inmate's hands.

By: JorgeEstrada on 2/2/09

A five round revolver made by Ruger is smaller than a cell phone or battery charger. I thought that smuggling a file in a cake was just the butt of a joke…May as well just open the doors for the homless and adjust the pay to the motel industry standards. My best to the state budget.

By: Black_Copter_Pilot on 2/2/09

Susan…you must be a guard or at least shacking with one to think you know so much….why not do your civic duty and name names?

By: Susan1union1 on 2/1/09

This is not the truth. Everyone knows that the prison guards bring in the cell phones to the inmates. The reason is that inmate families are charged outrageous rates for staying in touch with their loved ones in prison. Many inmates are parents, so in order maintain relationships with wives and children, the cell phones are much cheaper way to do that. The guards also bring in bricks of drugs, contraband such as tobacco and they make a ton of money doing so. A cell phone brings a guard $600. Look deeper. What a ridiculous article

By: Nameless on 2/1/09

The story is comical. Wonder if Josh has somethig up there?

By: Cindy on 2/1/09

What can I say. There was certainly nothing creative or cutting edge (no pun intended) in this latest cell phone smuggling incident . Jamming devices work and the staff can have a unique tone or code set up with an algorithm to keep their own communications functioning while on premise. I think there are easy solutions that can be applied to foil the cell phone dilemma in lock up facilities. With that said this story still "cracks me up".

By: Panicmanic on 2/1/09

I wonder if the dude had it set on ring or set to vibrate?

Perhaps he had a ringtone that said "Blow it out your Ass."

By: Booty_Juice on 2/1/09

Like the vast majority of prison contraband, it couldn't happen without corrupt staff.

By: badbilly on 1/31/09

The problem is the fact that inmates in our prison system have it too easy. Their family members who come to visit them have it too easy. They are where they are for a reason. Because they could not function out in society. Until we take away their "rights" [given to them by liberals], they will continue to have cell phones, drugs, and any type of contriband imaginable behind bars.

By: mccdave on 1/31/09

I wouldn't recommend a prison term — sans cellphone — for the following crimes, but I don't think any punishment would be cruel or unusual:

"And he cited the wide variety of cell phone utilizations that modern equipment now provides, along with a virtual cornucopia of opportunity for clever inmates with lots of time on their hands." — I engaged in a cell phone utilization today using modern equipment, seeking a virtual cornucopia of opportunity to write in English, but no one answered.

"Technology for communicating, however, is far advanced to technology for foiling communication." — And it's far advanced to a third-grade grammar book.

"The signal crashes into the cell phone’s incoming and outgoing signals" — This sentence crashed into my sense of style.

"…state officials now wrestling with an exploding surge in cell phone possession…" — And if you've ever wrestled with an exploding surge, you have a stronger stomach than me.

By: MikeKnecht on 1/31/09

While I can understand Cindy's laughter about an inmate shoving a cell phone up his butt, cell phones in prison are no joke. If an inmate gets angry with a nurse or a doctor or a correctional officer it's no big deal because the inmate is in prison. If that inmate can get on a cell phone, call a family member with an internet connection and get the staff members home address and the names of thier families then cell phones become less of a laughing matter. If an inmate can get on a cell phone and tell a friend where the road crew will be working on a given day then it is easy to hide drugs and weapons where they can be picked up brought into prison. When you add the additional twist of making tobacco illegal on prison grounds you have a dynamic where a lot of money can be made by inmates inside the prison. It is one thing for a staff member to go out and buy drugs to bring into prison. It is quite another for a staff member to stop at the liqour store and pick up a carton of cigarettes, smuggle them into the prison and make $500.00. Money is power and a lot of money is made off of tabacco in prison. Knowledge is power and a lot of confidential information can enter and leave prison through cell phones. Considering two correctional officers have been shot to death outside thier homes in the last six months, the ability of gangs to communicate orders to thier members on the street via cell phones is something to take seriously. Cell phones are a new and dangerous twist in keeping prisons safe.

By: Truthbeknown on 1/31/09

This is old news that has been reported by numerous news entities, including the Obama network, MSNBC.

By: calvertworthington on 1/31/09

Cellphone Jammers. Very inexpensive and used around the world to block cellphones in theaters, schools, miltary bases etc.

By: Cindy on 1/31/09

You have to be kidding me. This guy must have really really wanted his cell phone bad! Now I've heard it all and of course only in SLO county.

I get your point about what a problem cell phones can be in a jail/prison environment but I just can't take this story seriously with the vision of this reported inmate hiding this sort of contraband (literally)in his butt and the charger too! This is making me laugh as I type. I wonder if he had it set on vibrate? hahah

This guy should be on that dumbest criminals reality TV show.