New, but Not Unexpected, Technology Derails State’s Plan to Squelch Prison Cellphones

Friday, December 25, 2015
Cellphones confiscated in California prisons

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) cannot say it was not warned that the high-tech system it was deploying to stop rampant, forbidden cellphone use by inmates in the state’s 34 prisons probably would not work.

The 2012 report (pdf) by the California Council on Science and Technology said the system wouldn’t block 4G, Wi-Fi, MiFi, Skype, text messages or satellite transmissions. It can’t triangulate radio signals, limiting its effectiveness in identifying specific phones or users. And radio frequency leakage could interfere with regular cellphone usage, affecting the public’s access to 911 operators.

But the state forged ahead, installing the system at 18 prisons before deciding it wasn’t working.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the department has halted expansion while options are pondered. “It’s been difficult to make sure the technology can handle those upgrades,” CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas told AP. “Whether we're going to scrap it or whether we can find solutions to these issues, that will be determined later.”

The report had called the state’s long-term investment in untested technology “unwise” and premature, especially in light of the fact that it really doesn’t even know how many illegal cellphones are floating around the prison system. The council recommended using airport-style screening systems for all personnel and having private carriers identify and disable illicitly obtained phones.

“In point of fact, there are no prisons anywhere in the United States using a functional managed access system to control cell phone use,” the report said.  

Prison officials go to great lengths to prevent cellphones, often stolen, from being slipped into the prison by employees or visitors. It doesn’t work very well. Charles Manson, a high-profile 81-year-old killer, was recently caught twice with cellphones used to call around the country. A visitor was caught with a third phone meant for him, in a hallowed out boot heel. 

AP said the number of cellphones grabbed in California prisons declined markedly from 15,000 in 2011 to 8,000 in 2015. But the inmate who talked on his illicit phone to Vice reporter Seth Ferranti in February described a very active tech scene.

“All my homies that got phones, all of us are friends on Facebook. Niggas be making rap videos, they be filming riots and filming shit that's going on and putting them on YouTube.”  

The inmate, a lifer called “Big Smoke,” said, “The cellphones is rampant up and down the coast of California.” He claimed most of the phones were brought in by staff, but, “Some inmates is even smuggling them in now because it’s so profitable. They smuggling in memory cards, chargers, cords, anything that has to do with a cellphone. All that stuff goes for $50 a pop. Every part that has to do with a cellphone is profitable. The black market is big.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Rethinks High-Tech Drive to Bar Prison Cellphones (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

We Called a California Inmate to Talk About Illegal Smartphones in Prisons (by Seth Ferranti, Vice)

20 Prison Employees Fired for Smuggling Cellphones to Inmates for Love and Money (by Ken Broder, Allgov California)

How California Is Cracking Down on Illegal Cell Phone Use in State Prisons (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

The Efficacy of Managed Access Systems to Intercept Calls from Contraband Cell Phones in California Prisons (California Council on Science and Technology) (pdf)

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