Contraband Frustration

08/07/2017
Comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical I get, I can never seem to keep up.” One can only imagine what employees in correctional institutions would say about cynicism when it comes to contraband. Controlling contraband is a continuous endeavor for those employed in the correctional industry, and doing so requires utilizing technology and methods both new and old, and so much contraband either utilizes methods of communication to enter and be used in facilities, or the communication devices themselves are the contraband.

Savvy inmates can figure out how to hide things almost anywhere. Letter writing has been a form of communication and transferring material for centuries. Letters can be kept and re-read forever. The USPS is respected and dependable. When Harry Winston donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian, he sent it via registered mail for $2.13. Until 1872, mail thieves were subject to the death penalty. That level of dependability also means a reliable method of smuggling contraband. In 2013, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that drug smuggling in prison had been significantly reduced. Sheriffs’ Departments credited the reduction to a decision to ban inmates from getting letters delivered in envelopes.  During the first 11 months of the ban, deputies uncovered 10 attempts to smuggle narcotics into the facility. In the eight months prior, there had been 35 attempts. The year before that, prosecutors filed 66 contraband cases.  Furthermore, the drop came at a time when inmate numbers were up by about 400 a day. The figures might suggest a success, but when dealing with correctional facilities, an environment in which MacGyver types thrive, it’s just another problem that needs to be solved.
 
In Southwestern Virginia, inmates were receiving photos and other papers soaked in suboxone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction. On April 1, 2017, the Indiana DOC banned greeting cards and any other kind of colored paper of as well as photocopies of white paper. The move was a result of a recent trend of lacing mail with drugs. Lined white paper sent in white envelopes and legal documents can still be sent to inmates. The drug K2 is difficult to detect. Dogs cannot smell it, and drug tests are ineffective. Maryland proposed a rule barring inmates from receiving mail, also as a result of sending strips of suboxone in letters, often behind stamps. The proposal was withdrawn after pressure exerted by the ACLU.
 
Inmates have been known to hide things in the cleverest of places including in between the two sides of a post card. Technology waxes and wanes. Some do both. While technology has made many things obsolete, others simply dwindle. Dominic Vespia, owner of Swintec, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of typewriters, notes that there are two typewriter markets remaining: government and corrections.  State prisoners can have typewriters in their cells. Naturally a typewriter is rife with potential to hide contraband. “I don’t think a property room employee would see a typewriter come into the facility more than once a month,” Vespia says, but when they do, as with anything that is opaque, it needs to be searched. 
 
One problem is that if the employee damages the typewriter in the process, he or she is responsible for it, and Vespia estimates that as many as 80%-90% of typewriters are damaged during disassembly. On top of that, every time a cell is tossed, the typewriter will need to be searched, which means disassembled. It all began when Vespia got a call from an incarcerated attorney who sought a manufacturer to create a typewriter that would not need to be dismantled. Vespia, the attorney/inmate said, was his last hope. After some thought, Vespia came up with a clear typewriter casing, which is now manufactured specifically for prisons. (Among the customers is David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, who has written extensively while incarcerated). Most people buy the 2400 Model because, unlike in civilian life, the appeal is that this has the fewest functions. Federal prisons do not allow typewriters in cells. They keep them in the library, so the functionality even with the next step up would allow prisoners to leave messages for one another, an ability authorities do not want them to have.  Michigan waged a 15-year legal battle with inmates after they took away their typewriters. The inmates won the case with one caveat: the typewriters had to be clear, so once again, Vespia’s phone rang.
 
While typewriters may have dwindled in most markets, cell phones and smart phones have exploded. They are correctional facilities’ bane when it comes to contraband, and they are replete. When inmates rioted in Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, the first images sent to WKRG News 5 came from inmates’ smart phones. When asked how inmates even got phones, the answer was pretty simple. They buy them from COs. The logic to the inmates interviewed was that the inmates can communicate with their families, the CO can make some money for their own families, and it gives the inmates something to keep them occupied in a volatile environment that is both overcrowded and understaffed. The logic to COs though is that cell phones in an inmate’s hands can be as deadly as a weapon. Hits are ordered. Witnesses are intimidated. Exes who think they are safe are once again contacted. They are, said California State Sen. Alex Padilla, “a clear and present danger to public safety.” Recently the Association of State Correctional Administrators appealed to the FCC in a letter detailing some of the horrific crimes committed by inmates with access to cell phones. While the FCC is aware of the situation, corrections technology (CT) vendors offer solutions to the cell phone menace.
 
Multi-tiered Approach
Experts suggest utilizing a multi-tiered approach. There are effective measures such as dogs, metal detectors, and physical searches, but the situation still requires that the devices be confiscated in order to prevent communication. This puts the lives of correctional officers at risk by confronting inmates and burdens understaffed facilities even further. While every journey starts with a single step and every phone counts, detection on its own does not solve the issue as new devices will ultimately return into the correctional facility via drones, visitors, and corrupt officers.
 
One potential solution is managed access technology. Much like Stephen King’s The Dome, managed access creates an umbrella around a correctional facility that blocks incoming and outgoing cell phone calls. One company that offers such services is GTL, a Reston, Va.-based innovator in correctional technology and payment services solutions for government.  Chris Pickering, Intelligence Tools Team Lead at GTL, notes that Managed Access Systems (MAS) are crucial in fighting contraband phones. He furthers, though, that it is not a silver bullet. It could impact the reception for nearby communities. He stated, in his July 1, 2017 paper, that managed access should be considered a component of several solutions. For one thing, inmates constantly attempt to circumvent the facilities’ defenses and security measures by boosting connectivity and taking advantage of downtime during upgrades to wireless technology and MAS technology. Because of this, says Pickering, they recommend using the blended technologies approach, which addresses both sides of the supply and demand dynamic.
The blended approach requires the use of ferrous metal detectors, such as those manufactured by Metrasens.  The detectors sense the motion of metal, so if an inmate has a cell phone that is turned off, if it is moving, it will be detected. There should also be metal detectors as well as other mobile detection tools throughout the facility. 
 
Metrasens announced in July that the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services (DPSCS) has selected its Cellsense Plus contraband detection system to address the ongoing contraband interdiction efforts of correctional facilities across the state. In total, 163 Cellsense Plus systems will be deployed across 24 site/group locations.
 
CEIA-USA notes that recent standards issued by U.S. Department of Justice established new requirements regarding sensitivity, discrimination, and immunity for metal detectors used in correctional facilities. The three levels of security specified by the standard are small, medium, and large, and they define different possible treatments for visitors or inmates in correctional facilities. CEIA provides metal detectors specifically designed to comply with the different security levels of the standard as well as with other international standards for walk-through metal detectors used in correctional facilities. CEIA offers several solutions including walk-through metal detectors, hand-held metal detectors, bottle and liquid scanners, mail-screening devices, and magneto-static detectors.
 
All of these technologies can assist in preventing anything from coming into the facility in the first place. This “holistic” approach, wrote Pickering, is a proven and fast growing best practice. The analogy, furthers Jeffrey Haidinger, president and chief operating officer at GTL, is that of a leaking boat. Before you start bailing water, you need to plug the hole. The idea is the same. Before bailing out the phones from correctional facilities, the leak first needs to be stopped.
Securus Technologies is also a provider of managed access, a term, which says a Securus spokesperson, can mean different things to different people. Securus’ Wireless Containment Solution (WCS) prevents only illegal/unauthorized cellular communications from taking place but allows limited communications from authorized cell phones within a controlled environment. Wireless Containment Solution technology allows for 911 emergency calls from any cellular device on the system, thus aligning with general consumer public safety objectives. The functions of WCS are similar to that of a commercial cell phone company, but WCS creates a private cellular network within a facility's designated areas.
 
In its first month of use in a state correctional facility, Securus’ WCS prevented more than 35,000 illegal attempts at communication. “It is this specific feature of Securus’ WCS that makes this radio-based technology solution the most effective means to prevent the use of contraband cell phones,” the company states.
 
Along with preventing contraband devices from reaching the commercial mobile network, Securus’ system also has the capability to provide additional information to assist law enforcement agencies with criminal investigations. This feature can be critical in terminating threats and preventing hits put out on the lives of correctional staff, judges, witnesses, victims, and others.
 
Securus’ WCS detects, prevents, and intercepts illegal communication from wireless contraband devices but allows limited communication from authorized cell phones and all 911 calls. The way it works is by creating a private cell phone network within a facility’s designated areas and preventing illegal devices from connecting to commercial mobile networks thus eliminating threats posed by inmates with cell phones. It effectively eliminates the demand for contraband devices in correctional facilities because inmates with money are not afraid to use it, and an old flip phone has been known to fetch $2,000, but if it will only be a paper weight, there’s not much point.
 
One more recent development in contraband introduction is drones. Drones, says John Scarperia of Tex-Net Inc., have greatly impacted the effectiveness of vertical netting. (They also offer horizontal netting, which would be a more apt avenue in addressing drones).  Jail management consultant Donald Leach told USAToday that smugglers could be discouraged by introducing anti-drone jammers, which disable the signals on the flying objects, and a digital protective shield, which blocks the entry of drones into the facilities by hacking into its operating system.
 
In May 2017, Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey in the Channel Islands in the United Kingdom was the first prison in the world to adopt Sky Fence technology, which creates a 2,000-foot shield around a prison that will detect and deflect drones. The device works by utilizing a series of sensors called “disruptors” that jam the drone's computer, and block its frequency and control protocols. The operator's screen will go black and the drone will be bounced back to where it came from, sort of a Return to Sender.
 
The jail had planned on installing a drone detection system, but went a step further to put in the technology that actually stops drones in-flight. Prisoner governor David Matthews told the Telegraph, "This is the first time this technology has been used in any prison anywhere in the world.” Sky Fence was created by UK companies Drone Defence and Eclipse Digital Solutions. Richard Gill, CEO, told the Telegraph, "Someone described it as the final piece in a prison's security puzzle. I think it could have a significant worldwide impact." Costs range from £100,000 to £250,000 (about $130,000 to $320,000). Guernsey's Home Affairs president Deputy Mary Lowe told the Telegraph that the introduction of the technology was an exciting time. "Here we have Guernsey leading the way in the world."