How technology can combat contraband cell phones

Managed access has the ability to turn contraband cell phones into paperweights; but there are some drawbacks that might be deal breakers for smaller facilities

By C1 Staff

Correctional facilities work hard to catch contraband by trying out new programs and equipment to detect forbidden items before they get into prison. This includes cell phones, which let inmates continue to conduct business during their incarceration and even allow them to threaten correctional staff.

Cell phone jamming was once believed to be an appropriate response to contraband cell phones. But cell phone jamming is illegal, according to the Federal Communications Commission. This is because jamming prevents all calls within a certain area, which also can block emergency communications both inside and outside a prison.

Photo Calif. Council on Science and Technology

A better solutions is managed access, or call capture systems, for a more nuanced approach. But it’s not without its challenges.

What is managed access?
Managed access lets users create a list directory of approved numbers that can send and receive messages based on a geo-location pre-defined by an administrator. When approved numbers are entered into the system, it analyzes the thousands of cellular calls made within a given area each day and approves those that are allowed, according to the FCC.

If the system finds a call that is not on the pre-approved list, the number can be blocked from completing its call.

The system can also prevent text messages and can be programmed to detect SIM cards. So, simply switching the cards from one device to another won’t be enough to avoid the system.

Managed access systems also offer tools such as recording calls to later be used in prosecution.

What are its limitations?
There are still some hurdles to be overcome before managed access can be considered the cure-all for contraband cell phones.

Cellular carriers constantly are tweaking their networks and building new cell towers, which would force prison operators to update and change their managed access system. This costs prisons money and staff time.

Signal strength also is a consideration; if the prison is in a developed area and a carrier’s signal is weak, phones from outside the facility can still connect to those within the prison.

Then there’s staff with pre-approved access to use their own cell phones inside the facility that might let inmates use their phones to make calls.

But perhaps the most difficult aspect to overcome is budgeting; both Maryland and Alabama have recently crafted $2 million deals to place managed access systems at a handful of facilities. Alabama is seeking another $4 million to install the system at three more facilities in its network.  For smaller departments, this may be too steep of a cost.

Should you buy a managed access system?
It’s clear that there is no (and probably won’t be for some time, at least) singular solution to the threat of contraband cell phones in prisons.

But managed access systems deserve a close look, if not a trial run inside facilities. Many states are already implementing the technology inside a few guinea pig prisons to see how well it affects the flow of contraband, if at all. For example, the state of Mississippi was the first in the U.S. to install a managed access system in 2010. Since then, it’s intercepted 5,917,125 unauthorized calls and texts.

However, just like other technologies, the managed access system should be paired with other equipment – metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and, of course, irreplaceable correctional staff who are well trained in the art of not only finding but preventing contraband.

Have you had a managed access system in your facility? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

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