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A public menace: Smart phones in the hands of prisoners

With smart phones, prisoners can call in a hit or plan a robbery from inside their cell

By Dave Stancliff
Eureka Times Standard

EUREKA, Calif. — If smart phones seem to be everywhere nowadays, that’s because they are. Prisoners across the nation enjoy their benefits daily.

They can call in a “hit” or request exotic foods delivered to their cell. A convicted murderer can coordinate a robbery or an escape with equal ease.

Prisoners can organize strikes, as seen last year when several strikes hit the Georgia prison system thanks to the networking ability of prisoners’ smart phones.

Authorities discovered that they punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests with inmates of other prisons. Using pseudonyms, they were able to share hour-by-hour updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Cell phones are prohibited in all state and federal prisons in the United States. Without going into all the ingenious ways cell phones are smuggled to prisoners, suffice to say they’re a fact of life and an increasing problem for the nation’s prison security.

Analysts for California’s Senate Public Safety Committee flatly stated they believe employees are a big part of the problem. “All indications are that the primary source of cell phones smuggled into prisons is prison staff,” they wrote in a report last year.

Rebutting that accusation, guard union spokesman JeVaughn Baker told the Los Angeles Times, “Sure, there are instances where officers have brought them in. But to say that prison staff are the most likely smugglers of cell phones is simply inaccurate.”

“This kind of thing was bound to happen,” Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, told the New York Times on Jan. 2, referring to the accessibility of smart phones in prisons. Horn, who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said, “The physical boundaries that we thought protected us no longer work.”

Thus far, authorities are using various cell phone detection systems, with mixed results. Smart phones still find their way into prisoners’ hands. Federal Bureau of Prisons workers confiscated 1,188 cell phones in the first four months of 2010, according to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office. An estimated 10,000 phones were discovered in California prisons last year, according to a Feb. 3 article in the Los Angeles Times.

So what’s the answer? How do we fight this growing menace to society? One idea was to jam cell phones in prisons. Last year, prison officials from 30 states petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for permission to install technology that would solve the problem.

Chris Guttmann-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, told the press the FCC action would be a violation of the Communications Act of 1934. He also argued that technology is not really advanced enough to stop transmissions in a prison and not affect the immediate area around it.

That’s not the end of the story. There is hope. The Mississippi prison system recently installed a possible solution. This new system establishes a network around the prison that can detect every call and text. Called managed access, it tells callers they aren’t on an approved list and the phone ceases to function. The cell phone industry thinks this system is a good idea and has been supportive of it.

Several states are looking into managed access, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it catch on, if it works as advertised. I guess the other chink in prison authorities’ armor is finding the actual cell phones. I read where Maryland and New Jersey are testing dogs to sniff out the ionization of cell phone batteries.

I think what concerns me most is no matter how notorious or high-profile inmates are, they manage to get their hands on cell phones. For example, Charles Manson, one of California’s most notorious inmates, was recently found with one inside his cell at Corcoran State Prison for the second time in less than a year!

Ironically, the use of smart phones might not be a problem in prisons in a couple of years. According to a Jan. 8 article in the Washington Post, if things don’t change soon, smart phones may contribute to the collapse of the country’s 3G cellular network system. That would mean everyone, including prisoners, police, emergency services, and you and I wouldn’t have any service. The article warns that technology has to catch up with rapidly increasing usage by 2013 or we face a world without smart phones.

As It Stands, experts agree that a reliable cell phone detection device in prisons is the only workable way to stop their illegal use. The question is, will smart phones even be around by the time detection devices are perfected?

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