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California Criminalizes Cell Phone Smuggling, Seeks Technology to Block Cell Phone Calls from Prisons

In April 2011, Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), announced that he intended to enlist the aid of companies that bid for the state’s lucrative prison phone service contract in an effort to stem the ever-increasing tide of unauthorized cell phone calls made by prisoners.

Cate’s motivation is simple. CDCR cannot afford the estimated $16.5 million to $33 million it would cost to install up-to-date “managed access” technology at all 33 state prisons to block cellular signals. The motivation for the phone companies to help combat cell phone use by prisoners is equally simple: profits. As the number of contraband cell phones in the CDCR has grown, the prison phone system’s revenue has fallen.

In a recent interview, Cate put it bluntly. “If cell phones are inoperable, the company will make more money,” he said. That is, without contraband cell phones, prisoners who want to call family members and friends will have only one other option – prison pay phones, which will generate more money for the prison system’s phone service contractor, currently Global Tel*Link.

Cell phone jamming systems are used in prisons in Mexico, France, Australia and other countries, but face roadblocks in the U.S. due to a federal law that prohibits deliberate interference with radio signals, including cellular signals. Managed access systems circumvent that restriction by creating an electronic “umbrella” in a specific area that intercepts and blocks unauthorized cell phone signals within that area.

During a one-day test of a managed access system at a single CDCR facility, the system intercepted over 4,000 cell phone calls, texts and Internet access attempts. In the days after the test, usage of the prison phone system increased by 64%. The first managed access system in a U.S. prison was installed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in August 2010.

More importantly to prison officials, cracking down on contraband cell phones has public safety implications. They allege, while citing few if any concrete examples, that prisoners use cell phones to run criminal enterprises, arrange assaults and conduct other illicit business.

“We know that inmates with cell phones are ordering murders, organizing escapes, facilitating drug deals, controlling street gangs and terrorizing rape victims,” said state Senator Alex Padilla.

To make their point, public officials invariably note that Charles Manson, convicted of orchestrating several infamous killings in the 1960s, has been found in possession of a cell phone not once but twice. Then again, there is no evidence that Manson was doing anything illegal with those phones.

CDCR records reflect that in 2006 guards confiscated 261 cell phones. By 2010, that number had ballooned to over 10,000. Given the bulkiness of cell phones – and the fact that while visitors must go through metal detectors, most employees are not searched before entering prison grounds – legislators believe that CDCR staff members are the most likely source of smuggled cell phones.

Certainly, at the prevailing black market rate of $400 and up for a cell phone, smuggling cell phones into prison (which until recently was not a crime in California) can be a profitable enterprise, even for an otherwise highly-paid prison employee.

Whatever the source, the demand for cell phones among prisoners is high. Absent access to contraband cell phones, CDCR prisoners must use the prison phone system – and then only at inflated rates that, while less than in many other state prison systems, are higher than rates available to the non-incarcerated public (e.g., a 15-minute long distance call costs $6.65). [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1]. Thus, from a prisoner’s perspective, purchasing a cell phone, even at the risk of possible disciplinary action, ¬makes economic sense.

Indeed, while talk of “public safety” may fuel the debate over cell phone use by prisoners, ultimately the outcome may be determined simply by what makes economic sense to all the stakeholders. And the state has a financial stake, too, to be sure, as it continues to receive a kickback – $800,000 in 2011 – from the company that provides the CDCR’s prison phone service.

Meanwhile, legislation that criminalizes the smuggling of cell phones to prisoners, SB 26, was signed into law on Oc-tober 5, 2011. The law provides that “a person who possesses with the intent to deliver, or delivers [to prisoners] any cel-lular telephone or other wireless communication device or any component thereof ...” is subject to a misdemeanor charge punishable by a six-month jail sentence or a $5,000 fine, or both. Visitors who inadvertently carry a cell phone onto prison property but who do not intend to deliver it to a prisoner will have the phone confiscated and returned the same day (presumably after their visit). Prisoners who are caught with contraband cell phones will be subject to the loss of up to 90 days of good time credits.

Interestingly, SB 26, which was introduced by Senator Padilla, also requires the state to ensure as part of its prison phone service contract that until January 1, 2018, the phone rates for intrastate and interstate calls must be equal to or less than the rates in effect as of September 1, 2011, with the only allowable additional charges being per-minute charges and “prepaid account setup fees.”

Sources: Los Angeles Times,,

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