The War on Cell Phones

By Michael Grohs, Contributing Editor

Cell phones can be an annoyance in public, but in prisons they are a nightmare. Inmates can surreptitiously deal drugs, intimidate witnesses, run gangs, and manage criminal enterprises. In a period of just over three weeks, a single South Carolina facility detected more than 35,000 phone calls and texts. In March 2010, Capt. Robert Johnson, an officer at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., was shot in his own home six times in the chest and stomach and severely injured. It was, as stated in an April Op-Ed piece in USA Today  by Governor Nikki Haley and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, in retaliation for being good at his job in keeping contraband, particularly cell phones, out of the facility. The hit was ordered over a cell phone.

There are many ways to stop them, but they still get through. As Gov. Haley’s Op-Ed pointed out, the manner in which they are introduced involve everything from being dropped from drones to phones being thrown over the fence stuffed in anything from a football to a dead cat. This is a population that is not supposed to have access to paper clips.

The procedure to keep contraband out, says James Viscardi, vice president of Global Security at Metrasens, the manufacturer of Cellsense, starts with facilities determining what they want to keep out and how it is getting in in the first place. Cell phones are a primary piece of contraband.

There are laws. Vicky Waters, press secretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), notes, “Cell phone possession by inmates is a penal code violation, or a misdemeanor charge, that results in 90 days lost credit.” Most facilities use multiple tactics to keep phones out, what Viscardi describes as a “layered security approach” that includes X-ray machines, metal detectors, wands, canines, and inmate intel, yet every day Viscardi speaks to someone who has a contraband problem and they have to ask Why?  The answer is often three pronged. The first, he says, is that most facilities use traditional measures: the checkpoint paradigm. The second is that they do it at traditional places, which are at the perimeter of the facility, and the third is that they use traditional tools, and often what is needed are mobile and high-tech tools that can be brought to non-traditional areas. Says Waters, “We [CDCR] are currently in the process of installing a suite of detection solutions at all institutions, which will include x-ray scanners, ferromagnetic detectors, metal detectors, etc.”

Dogs, Viscardi says, are good, but they are expensive to train and can usually only work for about 45 minutes before needing to rest. They can also find cell phones but will miss other contraband, such as weapons. Steve Moore, director, Marketing Communications at Garland, Texas-based Garrett Metal Detectors furthers that, “Prisons are concerned with stopping all types of metallic contraband, including items such as hand-made knives or even razor blades. Garrett’s PD-6500i walk through detector has a new Prisons 2 program that provides enhanced detection of difficult weapons that are carried through in a vertical orientation—an orientation that has proven to be difficult for some other systems to detect.”

What facilities have been asking for, Moore says, is detectors that meet NIJ standards, “Something that the Garrett PD-6500i walkthrough detector meets or exceeds in each case. Two dimensional objects, such as knife blades, hacksaw blades, and razor blades, continue to be a concern, and Garrett has taken steps to ensure these items are properly detected with its latest Prisons 2 program on the PD-6500i.”

About five years ago, a newer ferromagnetic technology was developed by physicists that can detect cell phones whether they are on or off, have a battery or not, or are on the inside or outside of a human body. The technology does not detect metal. It detects magnetic components and changes in the earth’s magnetic field. There are numerous benefits to the device, such as being able to move it from place to place. (It weighs only 23 pounds.) It usually takes about 10 minutes to properly search a mattress. It can now be done in 10 seconds by dragging it in front the Cellsense unit. “It can detect a tattoo pin in a mattress.” In one situation, an inmate swallowed two security bits, which he knew he could get through a metal detector. When he was walked in front of Cellsense, the device was alerted and the inmate admitted he had swallowed them. The sensitivity shows tiny amounts of metal. If a paperclip is scanned with an X-ray, it will appear the size of a paperclip. If it is scanned with ferromagnetic technology, “It looks the size of a softball.” Another benefit is that the units can be hidden, and inmates can walk in front of it without being aware of it being there. It will detect metal behind a wall. Even if that wall contains metal, it will still work because in that case the metal is not moving. Its battery also lasts for 16 hours.

Having a managed access system is a component to the cell phone wall. Using managed access, facilities can either monitor or prevent phone calls, but Viscardi points out an important consideration. There is a misconception that managed access will turn a cell phone “into a brick,” but that it is not the case. It does, though, alter the threat. It may not be able to make or receive phone calls, but it can be used to send and store messages, pictures, video or myriad other information that could be smuggled out.

A few years ago, Waters says, CDCR began installing a managed access system, which focused on interrupting cell phone communications, a tactic that is currently being used in 18 state prisons “and has proven successful.” The system, though has proven somewhat difficult to maintain due to the continual advances in technology, so late last year, the department’s focus has shifted toward detection and elimination of cell phones rather than interruption of communication.”

Matt McCrann, director of Government Programs at Tecore Networks points out that other measures, such as using a wand are effective, but there is a lot of personal interaction. There is also the matter of officers smuggling phones, which then defeats the purpose. (One officer in California made $120,000 from smuggling in phones.) Tecore’s iNAC Managed Access system “forms a radio frequency umbrella around a precisely defined target area and manages cellular devices within range.” With the system, unauthorized phones cannot be used. The FCC does not allow blanket jamming. All phones must be able to call 911, but the FCC works with Tecore. If the system identifies a phone and realizes it’s the warden, it will go through the commercial network. If it is from one of the inmates, they would get a denial of service.

Addressing the Demand,Not the Supply
Brian Byrne is the managing partner at meshDETECT. He acknowledges that cell phones are a problem in correctional facilities around the world. He also points out that a large percentage of phone calls are not of a nefarious nature and discusses considering addressing the demand for phones rather than the supply. He furthers that about 40% of phone calls from prison are on an approved list and perhaps 70% including other family members or friends not on the list which is usually limited to about ten. “If they reduce the demand on those calls and offer some privacy, the demand will be reduced.” Mesh calls are monitored and recorded and can receive phone calls only from approved people. Right now there is not really a proactive way to contact a prisoner for day-to-day contact, such as to ask, “I’m selling the car. Where’s the title?” Cell phones, he contends, have often been considered the enemy, but more access to loved ones has proven to reduce recidivism, creates less anxiety, and could potentially generate revenue for the prison. Elements that can be controlled with meshDETECT include when calls can be made, who can make them, or whether the call is inbound or outbound. It can be shut down and changes made. “All that can be done with a pay phone but customized.” The facility determines who is and is not approved and can change restrictions. The technology uses a traditional cell phone network with no WiFi.

As it stands, the all and out total blockage is not an option. A 1934 law states that the FCC can grant permission to jam public airways only to federal agencies and not state or local governments. A recent letter sent to the FCC from 10 governors (including Vice President-Elect Pence) asked the Commissioners to reevaluate the current regulations regarding contraband cell phones and to allow states more flexibility to deal with them. About three years ago the FCC recommended allowing prisons to manage their own cell phone network access, and five states have, but under the current rules, each prison needs to petition the agency every time it wants to implement a system, restrictions that the FCC has called so complicated and time-consuming they discourage use.

As a result, the FCC proposed cutting the red tape and streamlining the process for using the technology. In the Op-Ed piece, Gov. Haley noted that South Carolina has expanded its use of managed access systems in its prisons since Cpt. Johnson's shooting, CNN reported. But she said the FCC must lead the way by loosening its regulation over prisons' airwaves.