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4 options for contraband cell phone detection

Cell phones are a continuous threat inside correctional facilities; here’s how you can find and stop this type of contraband before it becomes a problem in your prison or jail


Tazz, a 5-year-old springer spaniel trained to search prison cells for contraband cell phones, prepares for a practice search on Wednesday, July 9, at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, Md., with handler Sgt. Chris Caudell. Maryland and Virginia are the first states to train dogs specifically to sniff out cell phones.

AP Photo/ Kristen Wyatt

Frequent discoveries of contraband cell phones in correctional facilities have emerged as a serious problem in the last few years. These discoveries result in dangerous security ramifications and have grown into epidemic proportion. Cell phone usage by inmates poses both a safety and security risk by interrupting the monitoring processes in prisons.

Cell phones can record conversations, video images, provide internet access and ultimately be used to commit crimes and threaten facility security. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA ) “contraband cell phone use by prison inmates to carry out criminal enterprises is intolerable and demands an effective solution.”

More than 12,151 cell phones were discovered in California prisons and conservation camps alone in 2014. This contraband smuggling is of great concern to all corrections administration and officials. In October 2011, California Governor Edmond G. Brown signed Senate Bill (SB) 26 into law, making it a misdemeanor for possessing or attempting to introduce a cell phone into a correctional facility. SB 26 also details that visitors, contractors or staff who introduce the unauthorized device into a California prison may be subject to a misdemeanor prosecution and/or $5000 fine per device. Incarcerated individuals could face a loss of 90 days good time credit if found with a cell phone device in their possession.

How you can detect contraband cell phones
Several options exist in the prison setting for cell phone detection to combat this problem. Those options include K9 sniffing, hand held detection devices, fixed and portable detection systems, perimeter security including in custody or re-entry screening and, lastly, cell jamming/ managed access technologies.

K9 detection: The annual cost of employing a cell phone sniffing K9 includes the salary of the officer and the purchase of the animal, which can be somewhat costly. The cost may be offset by the long-term, low-cost benefits. The K9 alerts its handler to a cell phone battery, which means the phone does not need to be activated in order to be detected; an advantage over other detection devices. Three dogs working part time successfully detected 100 phones over the course of a year in a Maryland prison.

Handheld detection units: Handheld detection units are convenient as they are mobile and able to be used in units throughout the prison. Smaller units include a startup cost ranging from approximately $5000 for a hand held device up to $50,000 for a mobile detection chair. In order for the cell phone to be detected by these devices, the phone must be powered on or in use. Unfortunately, handheld devices have been known to provide false positive results.

Fixed detection installation: A fixed detection unit installation is estimated at around $100,000. The cell phone unit must be powered on; but if a phone is detected, this unit can also pinpoint the location of the phone. This larger type of detection unit must be regularly maintained and updated with the most recent software, firmware or hardware. Use of this large size unit may be considered more labor intensive as the individuals must be escorted to the device for screening, assumedly by staff.

Managed access: In 2011, AB26 California correctional facilities were granted permission to deploy specific technologies to disrupt unauthorized cellular transmissions from prisons. However, this technology is not permitted in all states at this time. This permissible “managed access” technology allows authorized and emergency calls to pass through a specifically designed detection system and is not considered the same cell phone jamming technology under the watchful eye of the Federal Communications Commission.

A managed access system provides a cellular umbrella over a specifically defined area such as a prison. This umbrella will intentionally interfere with transmissions of mobile wireless devices within the designated area. Through testing in two California prisons over an 11 day period in 2011, the CDCR blocked more than 25,000 unauthorized communication attempts such as calls, texts, internet access and emails. This is an average of 2,500 per day. Shortly after implementation of their managed access system in Mississippi, 26,000 text messages that were generated from within a single correctional facility were intercepted.

The correctional industry is on a quest for an efficient and cost effective solution to the prolific infiltration of cell phones into prison facilities. Examining several approaches and their effectiveness in each setting is a good start toward successful detection of this safety and security breach.

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years which included assignments in Corrections, Community Policing, Dispatch Communications and Search and Rescue. Melissa holds a BS in Criminal Justice and MA in Psychology with an emphasis on studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world.