Pris­ons try to halt cell­phone smug­gling

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Don Thomp­son

sacra­mento, calif.» Cal­i­for­nia is in­stalling nearly 1,000 so­phis­ti­cated metal de­tec­tors, scan­ners and se­cret se­cu­rity cam­eras at its pris­ons in its lat­est at­tempt to thwart the smug­gling of cell­phones, thou­sands of which con­tinue to flood the pris­ons de­spite pre­vi­ous ef­forts.

Of­fi­cials say the phones can be used to co­or­di­nate at­tacks in prison and crimes on the street, yet they have thus far been un­able to pre­vent even high-se­cu­rity in­mates such as cult killer Charles Man­son from get­ting the de­vices — il­le­gal be­hind bars — re­peat­edly.

Corrections of­fi­cials told The As­so­ci­ated Press a year ago that they were halt­ing the ex­pan­sion of a 5-yearold pro­gram de­signed to make unau­tho­rized cell­phones use­less by cap­tur­ing their sig­nals be­fore calls are con­nected. Of­fi­cials fear the call-in­ter­cept­ing de­vices may not be able to keep up with in­creas­ingly A cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer in­spects one of more than 2,000 cell­phones con­fis­cated from in­mates at the Cal­i­for­nia State Prison in Va­cav­ille. As­so­ci­ated Press file so­phis­ti­cated cell­phones.

So Vir­ginia-based Global Tel-Link, the na­tion’s largest prison phone com­pany, is head­ing a new ap­proach funded by a pro­jected $17 mil­lion a year from Cal­i­for­nia in­mates and their fam­i­lies who use land­lines to make phone calls that are mon­i­tored for se­cu­rity rea­sons. Those range from 10 cents per minute for lo­cal calls to 25 cents per minute for col­lect in­ter­state calls, in keep­ing with rates set by the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

GTL has been ac­cused by in­mates and their fam­i­lies of charg­ing ex­or­bi­tant rates for phone calls, prompt­ing some to join a class-ac­tion law­suit against the com­pany.

The De­part­ment of Corrections and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is in­stalling 272 more metal de­tec­tors, 68 X-ray machines to scan pack­ages, 103 low-dose X-ray scan­ners, 170 hid­den sur­veil­lance cam­eras, 34 de­vices to de­crypt and an­a­lyze cell­phones, and 272 scan­ners that de­tect mag­netic sig­nals.

Re­mov­ing il­le­gal cell­phones can force in­mates to use the pris­ons’ phone sys­tem, said Jim Vis­cardi, vice pres­i­dent of global se­cu­rity for Illi­nois-based Me­trasens, which is pro­vid­ing the mag­netic-sig­nal de­tec­tors. The sen­si­tive scan­ners can de­tect tiny metal ob­jects even if they are in­side a body cav­ity, a com­mon way of smug­gling phones and weapons in­side pris­ons.

The lat­est crack­down is un­likely to de­ter in­mates who want to con­duct il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties us­ing an un­mon­i­tored cell­phone, said Mitch Volkart, a Global Tel-Link prod­uct man­ager.

“There is no magic bul­let,” he said. “You can’t try to ad­dress the de­mand be­cause the de­mand is al­ways go­ing to be there.”

So it’s bet­ter to con­trol the sup­ply, Volkart said, not only by cap­tur­ing il­licit phones but an­a­lyz­ing their calls and con­tents. That anal­y­sis has at times led to in­ves­ti­ga­tors un­cov­er­ing weapons or drugs within pris­ons, he said.

The com­pany has sim­i­lar pro­grams with other states in­clud­ing In­di­ana, Michi­gan, Ohio and Ok­la­homa, he said.

Smug­glers are get­ting trick­ier: In April, they at­tempted to use a drone to fly two cell­phones into Iron­wood State Prison, 130 miles east of Los An­ge­les, al­though the drone crashed be­fore it could de­liver the goods.

And all the state’s pre­vi­ous ef­forts haven’t pre­vented Man­son, the 82-year-old cult leader, from be­ing caught with cell­phones three times. Author­i­ties say a vis­i­tor was thwarted when he was caught try­ing to bring Man­son a phone con­cealed in a boot heel.

The new de­tec­tion de­vices are ex­pected to be used on in­mates, vis­i­tors and em­ploy­ees in all 35 adult pris­ons and three ju­ve­nile fa­cil­i­ties by July.

Corrections de­part­ment spokes­woman Vicky Wa­ters said it is too soon to say if the scan­ners will re­place body cav­ity searches or a con­tro­ver­sial process known as con­tra­band sur­veil­lance watches — or more in­for­mally, “potty watches.” In­mates sus­pected of swal­low­ing or con­ceal­ing con­tra­band in body cav­i­ties are iso­lated and their hands re­strained for sev­eral days or un­til they com­plete at least three bowel move­ments.

“Why can’t they do X-rays or some­thing ... like the air­ports do to us now?” asked Irma Cooper, who had to leave her bra in the car when she went to visit her son be­cause it con­tained metal. “I just think that’s ridicu­lous in this day and age, when they can do those scans.”

She was fur­ther dis­mayed when her son told her he had to un­dergo a dig­i­tal rec­tal exam each time he left the vis­it­ing room at High Desert State Prison, to make sure he wasn’t smug­gling con­tra­band.

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