Cell phones in prisons a new, modern threat

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Prisons are dangerous places; it’s a long-accepted given. Now, however – with the burgeoning technology so common to the 21st century – the corruption once restricted to within a penitentiary’s walls has extended outward, to the rest of society.The medium? None other than the same mobile phones and devices enjoyed by millions of Americans each year.

The medium? None other than the same mobile phones and devices enjoyed by millions of Americans each year.The problem has grown in such magnitude, in fact, that the Federal Communications Commission has taken notice. These days, in the words of Commissioner Ajit Pai, cell phones in the hands of inmates could very well be considered weapons. The FCC head stated as much at a Corrections Technology Association conference last year.

The problem has grown in such magnitude, in fact, that the Federal Communications Commission has taken notice. These days, in the words of Commissioner Ajit Pai, cell phones in the hands of inmates could very well be considered weapons. The FCC head stated as much at a Corrections Technology Association conference last year.
Those who find such caution extreme might consider the case of a prison riot in Alabama, filmed and uploaded in real-time to social media. In Georgia, the revenge killing of an infant was given on the authority of a federal prisoner. And in South Carolina, a state warden was shot six times in his stomach and chest during an attempted home assassination. The hit was ordered from inside of a prison.

The formidable capability of modern cell phones such as Internet access, cameras and video capture technology have enabled free society to enjoy unprecedented access and connectedness with the rest of the world. The problem arises when those with less scruples get their hands on it. Inmates in possession of illicit cell phones have been known to maintain gang affairs, intimidate witnesses pending trial, manage drug connections and – as cited above – authorize acts of violence, all from within the ostensible confines of federal prisons.The means of smuggling devices into prisons have grown increasingly imaginative. Prisoners – ever with time on their hands – and their associates have been known to accomplish phone hand-offs in a number of ways. Footballs containing devices have been thrown over penitentiary walls. Supply drops containing phones with pre-loaded data plans have been discovered in the woods outside rural facilities. Remote-piloted drones have even been employed by outsiders to airdrop illegal items into prison yards. The latter schemes have been aided by apparent loopholes in current legislation regarding the restriction of drones near prisons.

The means of smuggling devices into prisons have grown increasingly imaginative. Prisoners – ever with time on their hands – and their associates have been known to accomplish phone hand-offs in a number of ways. Footballs containing devices have been thrown over penitentiary walls. Supply drops containing phones with pre-loaded data plans have been discovered in the woods outside rural facilities. Remote-piloted drones have even been employed by outsiders to airdrop illegal items into prison yards. The latter schemes have been aided by apparent loopholes in current legislation regarding the restriction of drones near prisons.

Officials in some facilities have even reported cases in which devices are hidden inside dead animals. When inmate-staffed cleanup crews make their rounds in search of trash and other debris, members expecting a drop manage to break away momentarily and extract the hidden item from the carcass. All are examples of the extreme lengths to which prisoners will go to get their hands on illegal items – cell phones, particularly.

The problem, growing nationwide, has been noted especially by the California Department of Corrections. According to its website, the state has taken both preventive and legislative measures to curb the apparent trend in its facilities. In Oct. 2011, for example, Governor Edmund G. Brown signed into action Senate Bill 26, which makes possession or smuggling of an illicit device into prison a misdemeanor. Civilian violators may now face up to a $5,000 fine for testing those odds, and inmates found in possession of a contraband cell phone can lose up to 90 days’ credit for time previously served.

Other measures taken have involved canine sweeps, by which trained dogs are implemented to detect both narcotics and cell phones. In one year and a half span, approximately 955 cell phones were seized across the state, according to the site.
Such figures, while notable, only tell the story of devices seized. For officials, the obvious question remains – how many are still out there, being used?
This question, with no apparent answer, has set prisons seeking assistance outside the conventional.

Securus Technologies of Dallas, Tx., has offered at least one means by which unauthorized contact from prisons might be mitigated. The company terms them Wireless Containment Solutions (WCS)

WCS function as an enhancement of existing, similarly-termed Managed Access Solutions. Through MAS, a localized cell network is established in the vicinity of a prison facility. Any mobile communication device operating within the system’s radius must first access and be authorized by the system’s domain before connecting to a commercial provider such as Sprint, Verizon or AT&T. MAS recently has been employed in combination with fore-cited methods such as canine sweeps, metal detectors and random searches.

These blended solutions are still not failsafe, according to the Dallas company. “(They) are only partially effective,” said Richard A. Smith, Securus Chair and Chief Executive Officer. “And they ultimately leave the public vulnerable.”

The staggering financial cost and manpower requirement involved in human-based intervention, particularly, places unneeded burden on the prison system, by Smith’s assessment. What tops the list of cons is the ultimate cost involved with placing employees in harm’s way. For an already limited solution, the ends simply don’t justify the means.

Measures employed by Securus, considered more advanced, boast the capability to provide intel regarding the source of unauthorized communications. The tracking system employed by the company enables a sort of one-two punch, by which calls are first prevented and then traced back to their origin. This way, the device responsible for the call may also be seized.

Securus considers its numbers generated in the past year as proof that its system is making a difference. Indeed, between July 2016 and 17’, WCS systems employed by the company identified and identified and prevented over 1.7 million illicit transmission attempts in eight U.S. facilities. One prison in particular reported phone call attempts in excess of 107,000 during the first two months following system activation.

The company is strident in distancing its system description from the more familiar term of “jamming,” a process still banned by the FCC. Indeed, federal compliance has been an initiative moving forward. Some recent legislation has even functioned toward increasing the efficiency of WCS.

“In March of this year, the FCC voted to streamline the process for correctional facilities to access contraband interdiction technology, like Securus’ WCS, by reducing the amount of paperwork and requiring wireless carriers to work with facilities,” said Smith in a press release recently.

“Securus has invested over $40 million and counting into WCS to date, and will continue to develop its proven solution to ensure that it continues to be the most effective means of eradicating contraband cell phones in our nation’s facilities.”

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