Illicit jail phone calls now blocked, Md. says

State officials say they have blocked service at for the contraband cellphones that have long fueled gang activity

By Michael Dresser and Ian Duncan
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — State officials say they have blocked service at the Baltimore City Detention Center for the contraband cellphones that have long fueled gang activity there.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to announce Friday the recent activation of a "managed access" system, which officials say is already blocking unauthorized calls by inmates.

State officials say the phones have been an essential tool for criminals inside the antiquated facility. Authorities say Black Guerrilla Family leader Tavon White used them to direct a contraband smuggling scheme, transfer payments and alert associates of planned searches.

A federal grand jury indicted dozens of people last year, including corrections officers, inmates and gang members outside the jail in the scheme. The outrage increased the urgency of the need for new security measures, which the state already had tried to put in place but had been stymiedby technological challenges.

O'Malley told reporters last month that the phones would be useless once the state flipped the switch on its new, $4 million system.

Rick Binetti, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Thursday that the goal had been achieved.

"If there are illegal cellphones inside Baltimore City Detention Center, they're not working — any of them," he said.

He said the new system ensures that authorized phone calls and text messages to or from a limited number of state-issued phones will still get through — as will 911 calls from any device.

Binetti said cellphones have been a serious problem for prisons and jails since the early to mid-2000s as the devices became smaller and easier to smuggle in.

O'Malley had pressed since the early years of his administration for a technological solution that would render unauthorized phones useless.

Binetti said the state's efforts were thwarted for years by a federal law that forbids cellphone jamming by any entity except a federal government agency. In 2009, then-Maryland Public Safety Secretary Gary Maynard testified before Congress in favor of legislation that would have let states seek Federal Communications Commission permission to use jamming technology in prisons.

The legislation passed the Senate but failed in the House, Binetti said.

The system that O'Malley plans to unveil during a visit to the jail on Friday is based on technology developed by Columbia-based Tecore Networks.

The system does not simply jam cellphones; it captures calls before they reach public phone networks, recognizes authorized phone numbers and lets those calls go through.

A warning message can be sent to callers who use a phone that is not allowed to make calls. The system also blocks unauthorized text messages and mobile data.

A Tecore executive said the technology has been recognized by the FCC and the cellular phone industry as a legal alternative for jails and prisons. The executive said it was first used in Mississippi in 2010 but had not been deployed in an urban setting until Baltimore began installing it last year.

According to Tecore, the blocking does not extend beyond the prison itself. It would not affect cellphone calls on the streets.

The corrections department conducted a trial of the managed access system last year at the older, smaller Metropolitan Transition Center adjacent to the jail on the theory that if it was compatible with that antiquated structure, it would work anywhere. It has been up and running there full time since April.

Binetti said the blocking apparatus "went live" at the Baltimore City Detention Center on Dec. 30. He said the department held off on making an announcement as it worked out final bugs and made sure the system would work.

The technology has wide support from legislators, law enforcement and union officials for its ability to disrupt gang activity.

Archer Blackwell, a member of the AFSCME unit that represents officers at the jail, said the union likes the technology.

"That's very much needed," he said.

A state legislative commission that was established to propose security improvements after the federal indictments wants to expand the use of cellphone blocking. The lawmakers aimed to provide funds for it at the detention center first, and other jail facilities in the Baltimore area in coming years.

Del. Guy Guzzone, the Howard County Democrat who co-chairs the commission, said he was "incredibly pleased" the system is now online.

"It is a good deal to handle a very serious problem," he said.

Binetti said the technology would be installed at other institutions in the state prison system as needed. He said the governor's budget includes money to deploy managed access to other secure facilities in Baltimore.

Binetti said it's too early to tell what effect the technology has had on the flow of contraband or other illegal activities at the jail. But he said the state has an idea of its effectiveness from the long lines at the authorized pay phones at the transition center.

"The use of those phones has skyrocketed since that managed access system is up and running, and we expect to see the same at BCDC," he said.

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