California tries once again to stamp out prison cell phones

By Kevin D. Sawyer

After years of failure, California’s state prison system is taking a new approach to stamp out contraband cellphones.

According to The Associated Press (AP), the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is equipping its prisons with close to 1,000 scanners, metal detectors and “hidden” security cameras to curb the use of illegal cellphones.

Among some of the new hardware to be deployed to locate mobile phones are scanners that detect magnetic signals, and other devices that decrypt and analyze wireless signals, according to the AP.

Metrasens, an Illinois-based company, provides the magnetic-signal detectors, the AP reported. “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 prison,” according to reporter Don Thompson.

The AP reported CDCR Press Secretary Vicky Waters saying it’s too early to say if the scanners will replace body cavity searches or surveillance confinements, also known as “potty watches,” where prisoners suspected of ingesting or concealing contraband in body cavities are isolated and restrained for several days or until they complete at least three bowel movements.

Five years ago, Governor Brown’s administration and the CDCR deployed equipment to block the use of unauthorized cellphones used by state prisoners. At the time, the technology was criticized for being “unproven and could undermine public safety,” according to a KQED article by journalist Michael Montgomery.

At that time, bipartisan members of the California State Senate asked the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) to “analyze the overall issue of contraband cellphones as well as the viability of a specific proposed system for managing cellphone access in prisons, Managed Access Systems.”

According to the CCST study released in 2012, there were “significant concerns” about plans to install “managed access technology” in the state’s prisons. In a letter to the state senate, it concluded “the technology shows promise, but is not ready for deployment.”

“Managed access as proposed will not do the job that the CDCR wants done,” said Susan Hackwood, the CCST’s executive director. 

Global Tel*Link (GTL), the nation’s lead provider of inmate calling services, provided Managed Access to CDCR. Mitch Volkart, a GTL product manager, told the AP, “There is no magic bullet. You can’t try to address the demand because the demand is always going to be there.”

The AP reported that there are cellphone signal-capturing devices installed at 18 CDCR prisons that interrupted an average of more than 350,000 calls and text messages each week last year, more than double that of 2015.

“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,” the AP reported. But that number is again increasing with nearly 8,000 cell phones found by August 2016.

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