No buts about it: Inmate cell phone use up
January 31, 2009
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
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.