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High-tech plan to block prison cell phones 'unwise,' report says

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A deal between Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and a private communications company to deploy special equipment to block the rampant use of contraband cell phones by state prison inmates is based on a technology that is unproven and could undermine public safety, according to a new report.

A study by the nonpartisan California Council on Science and Technology released this week raises “significant concerns” about plans to install “managed access technology” in the state’s 33 adult prisons.

"Managed access as proposed will not do the job that the (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) wants done," said Susan Hackwood, the council's executive director. 

In April, corrections officials awarded a contract to build and manage a system to filter electronic communications at state lockups to Global Tel*Link, which already operates the traditional pay phones that inmates are allowed to use.

Department officials said the deal was “risk-free” for taxpayers because Global Tel*Link will pay for all equipment, installation and operating costs. Company officials expect to offset those costs through increased demand for the pay phones, which are available in most prison units and monitored by staff.

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“This groundbreaking and momentous technology will enable CDCR to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates,” corrections Secretary Matt Cate said, noting inmates “have used cell phones to commit more crimes, organize assaults on staff and terrorize victims.”

But the 71-page study, produced at the request of four state senators, highlights a long list of potential problems with the proposed system, including:

  • The technology as it is currently configured cannot capture 4G, Wi-Fi, MiFi, Skype, text messages or satellite transmissions.
  • The technology cannot “triangulate” radio signals, thus limiting the effectiveness in identifying specific phones or users.
  • For prisons located in or near populated areas, radio frequency “leakage” could interfere with regular cell phone communications, greatly reducing the “capability of public safety professionals to serve the community’s needs or the general public’s ability to access a 911 operator.”
  • The corrections department has not identified the size of the contraband cell phone problem, making it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the technology when it’s deployed.
  • Efforts by the state to test the system were “rudimentary and would, at best, constitute a proof of concept, not an acceptable operational pilot test.”
  • The only U.S. prison that has installed managed access technology, a facility in rural Mississippi, has encountered serious operational issues, and the system is not yet fully deployed.

Last year, 15,000 contraband cell phones were discovered at prisons and conservation camps around the state, up from 1,400 in 2007, according to corrections department data.

While the study affirms that cell phone smuggling in prisons is a serious problem, it recommends having private carriers identify and disable illicit phones and establishing airport-style screening systems “before investing millions in untested technology.”

“A long-term statewide investment in this technology before it is proven is, in our opinion, unwise,” the report’s authors said in a May 8 letter to lawmakers.

Unlike many other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, California does not routinely search staff as they enter state lockups. (Visitors are required to pass through metal detectors.)

Some state officials have said they would like to impose airportlike security checks on staff at all state prisons.

But representatives from the prison guards union have said such a move would require the state to renegotiate its contract and would add to the time it takes correctional officers to get from their cars, or the prison gate, to their work stations. Union members are paid for this “walk time.” Added walk time could cost the state millions, according to some analysts.

According to the study, staff at two facilities “were observed carrying duffel bags and soft-sided ice chests in and out of the prison without thorough screening.”

Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said proposals requiring staff to submit to airport-style security screenings were "shortsighted" and failed to attack the root of the problem.

Simas said many of the concerns raised in the report were unfounded and managed access technology is backed by the Federal Communications Commission.

"It's risk-free," she said. "If it stops at least one criminal incident involving a cell phone from happening, it worked."

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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