California tries again to thwart prison cellphones
December 18, 2016
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is installing nearly 1,000 sophisticated metal detectors, scanners and secret security cameras at its prisons in its latest attempt to thwart the smuggling of cellphones, thousands of which continue to flood the prisons despite previous efforts.
Officials say the phones can be used to coordinate everything from attacks in prison to crimes on the street, yet they have thus far been unable to prevent even high-security inmates like cult killer Charles Manson from repeatedly getting the devices that are illegal behind bars.
Corrections officials told The Associated Press a year ago that they were halting the expansion of a now 5-year-old program designed to make unauthorized cellphones useless by capturing their signals before calls are connected. Officials fear the call-intercepting devices may not be able to keep up with increasingly sophisticated cellphones.
So, Virginia-based Global Tel-Link, the nation's largest prison phone company, is heading a new approach funded by a projected $17 million a year from California inmates and their families who use landlines to make phone calls that are monitored for security reasons. Those range from 10 cents per minute for local calls to 25 cents per minute for collect interstate calls, in keeping with rates set by the Federal Communications Commission.
GTL has been accused by inmates and their families of charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, prompting some to join a class-action lawsuit against the company.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is installing 272 more metal detectors, 68 X-ray machines to scan packages, 103 low-dose X-ray scanners, 170 hidden surveillance cameras, 34 devices to decrypt and analyze cellphones, and 272 scanners that detect magnetic signals.
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Removing illegal cellphones can force inmates to use the prisons' phone system, said Jim Viscardi, vice president of global security for Illinois-based Metrasens, which is providing the magnetic-signal detectors. The sensitive scanners can detect tiny metal objects even if they are inside a body cavity, a common way of smuggling phones and weapons inside prisons.
The latest crackdown is unlikely to deter inmates who want to conduct illegal activities using an unmonitored cellphone, said Mitch Volkart, a Global Tel-Link product manager.
"There is no magic bullet," he said. "You can't try to address the demand because the demand is always going to be there."
So it's better to control the supply, Volkart said, not only by capturing illicit phones but analyzing their calls and contents. That analysis has at times led to investigators uncovering weapons or drugs within prisons, he said.
The company has similar programs with other states, including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma, he said.
Smugglers are getting trickier: In April, they attempted to use a drone to fly two cellphones into Ironwood State Prison, 130 miles east of Los Angeles, though the drone crashed before it could deliver the goods.
And all the state's previous efforts haven't prevented Manson, the 82-year-old cult leader, from being caught with cellphones three times — most recently in February, but also in 2009 and 2011. Authorities say a visitor was thwarted in 2013 when he was caught trying to bring Manson a phone concealed in a boot heel.
The new detection devices are expected to be used on inmates, visitors and employees in all 35 adult prisons and three juvenile facilities by July.
Corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters said it is too soon to say if the scanners will replace body cavity searches or a controversial process known as contraband surveillance watches — or more informally, "potty watches." Inmates suspected of swallowing or concealing contraband in body cavities are isolated and their hands restrained for several days or until they complete at least three bowel movements.
"Why can't they do X-rays or something … like the airports do to us now?" asked Irma Cooper, who had to leave her bra in the car when she went to visit her son because it contained metal. "I just think that's ridiculous in this day and age, when they can do those scans."
She was further dismayed when her son told her he had to undergo a digital rectal exam each time he left the visiting room at High Desert State Prison to make sure he wasn't smuggling contraband. Waters said inmates are strip-searched and scanned with metal detectors, but are not routinely subjected to rectal exams.
"We're concerned that more and more barriers are being thrown up for visitors that aren't getting us anywhere, as far as we can tell," said Laura Magnani, an advocate with the American Friends Service Committee.
Cellphone signal-capturing devices previously installed at 18 prisons interrupted an average of more than 350,000 calls and text messages each week this year, more than double last year's rate.
The number of seized cellphones had been dropping since California began using the call-intercepting devices, from 15,000 phones in 2011 to fewer than 8,000 last year.
But the number is growing again this year, with nearly 8,000 found just through August.