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Cell Phone Monitoring and Prisons

MSNBC reports that California has proposed stronger legislation to help fight cellular technology in prisons:

Discoveries of contraband cell phones in California prisons doubled in 2008 from the year before, with over 2,800 seized. A standardized reporting system was put in place by CDCR last year to allow all prisons to uniformly report the number of confiscated phones.

Prison staff currently has the ability to monitor all inmate calls that are made through the traditional inmate phone system. Contraband cell phones circumvent this system, and have been used by inmates to coordinate escapes, communicate with inmates in other prisons, and direct illegal activities on the streets, the state said.

Ah, there is a giant hint in the second paragraph. Why do prison staff lack the ability to monitor cellular calls? New South Wales, Australia already has strict measures against cell phones:

It is clear that mobile telephones in the possession of inmates pose a considerable threat to the safety of prison staff and the community at large. That is why the department devotes a considerable amount of its resources to stopping them entering our corrections system. For example, metal detectors, intelligence-based targeted searches of inmates and contraband searches of prison visitors are some of the existing strategies to keep prisons mobile phone free. The department ensures that any person caught trafficking mobile phones is dealt with to the full extent of the law. The trafficking of mobile telephones into a correctional centre is an offence under the Summary Offences Act 1988, punishable by a two-year custodial sentence, a $2,200 fine or both.

Prevention such as this usually fails not least of all because inmates know when they successfully circumvent the system. This is like the traditional jail break. There are far too many methods for phones to reach the prisoners for the technology to be blocked entirely, as noted by Brazilian police.

Inmates have devised an innovative way to smuggle in cell phones into a prison farm in Brazil: carrier pigeons. Guards at the Danilio Pinheiro prison near the southeastern city of Sorocaba noticed a pigeon resting on an electric wire with a small cloth bag tied to one of its legs last week. “The guards nabbed the bird after luring it down with some food and discovered components of a small cell phone inside the bag,” police investigator Celso Soramiglio said Tuesday.

One day later, another pigeon was spotted dragging a similar bag inside the prison’s exercise yard. Inside the bag was the cell phone’s charger, Soramiglio said.

With phones literally flying into prisons, and technology rapidly changing, what can the institutions do besides prevention? Detection is far more effective because it puts the inmates at a significant disadvantage. First, there are the amazing phone-sniffing dogs. The Parliament of New South Wales has enlisted a black lab and a border collie from their Corrective Services Drug Dog Detection Unit. Second, there are pure technology solutions like Air Patrol, Netline, and Cell Hound that detect and could potentially capture signals. Third, the providers themselves can be required to report or even log and provide call details on devices connecting from prison grounds. Finally, the cell phones entering prisons could be modified or planted by officials as part of sting and surveillance operations. Perhaps this sounds unreasonable unless you consider that guards already are implicated in the smuggling controversy.

But the majority are supplied by guards, often in exchange for bribes. The going price: $500. In Pennsylvania, corrections officers can themselves end up in jail under the law inspired by the Ronald Whethers case in 2000.

In Cambria County, for example, former part-time officer Donald Burkett is awaiting trial on a charge of letting an inmate use his personal cell phone to call his girlfriend. A second guard is under investigation.

Although there are obvious legal and humanitarian/ethical issues with all these methods, the fact remains that detective controls will provide far more effective and rich options for reducing cell phones than prevention alone.

Posted in Security.

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  1. Don Scharf says

    Excellent analysis. Thank you!

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