The installation costs of the cell phone blocking system, called a managed access system, are estimated to be between $16.5 million and $33 million. To compensate for that expense, the revenue generated from prison phone services necessarily must be much greater. And it is, for two related reasons.
First, in most cases CDCR prisoners must use the prison phone system to make calls, as GTL has a monopoly on in-prison phone services. Second, because the rates charged for prison calls are not subject to the moderating forces of competition, they are much higher than non-prison phone rates. A typical intrastate (in-state) 15-minute call from a CDCR facility costs up to $2.00, while a 15-minute interstate (long distance) call costs $6.60. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.16]. Interstate rates are now subject to change due to recent action by the FCC.[See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p. 42].
With a captive consumer base of approximately 125,000 CDCR prisoners, it is easy to see that GTL will have little trouble recovering the costs of the managed access technology, due to the volume and cost of prison phone calls.
The cell phone blocking system being installed by GTL is not simply a matter of jamming cell phone signals in the area surrounding a prison, as such a practice would be prohibited by Federal Communications Commission regulations. Rather, it requires each prison to have its own cell tower; prison officials will then be able to filter out all signals other than those being sent from or received by approved phones.
According to the CDCR’s contract with GTL, “The Managed Access System (MAS) services will provide the CDCR with complete 24-hour, continuous blocking of all unauthorized cellular wireless communications within the defined scope of each facility.”
The cell phone blocking system went online at the first CDCR facility – Avenal State Prison – in October 2012. Prison officials plan to have the system operational at all CDCR facilities by mid-2015.
“It will mean that they can no longer make voice calls, send emails, text messages [or] access the Internet,” stated CDCR employee Tammy Irwin. “It is going to disconnect them from the public, and it’s going to help public safety.”
Cell phones are now relatively ubiquitous in California prisons. In 2011, more than 15,000 contraband phones were confiscated by CDCR staff. Prison officials claim that the illegal phones have been used to run criminal enterprises, intimidate witnesses and organize attacks on guards. Although they do not cite any specific examples to support such claims, they invariably point to the fact that Charles Manson has been caught with a cell phone on two occasions. While this understandably attracts the attention of the media and lawmakers, it begs the question: how did Manson, arguably the state’s most notorious prisoner, twice obtain a cell phone?
Officials acknowledge that the answer is CDCR employees, who represent a primary source of contraband cell phones supplied to prisoners. Efforts to curb this flow by searching staff members as they enter prison grounds, however, have stalled due to concerns raised by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the union that represents prison guards, which noted that its members would have to be paid for the time spent being searched.
Other solutions exist to the security problems, real or imagined, posed by cell phones. The federal prison system, for example, provides other communication options for prisoners as an alternative to contraband cell phones – such as TRU-LINCS, a secure email system. The CDCR apparently has not considered that option, instead deciding to rely on GTL’s blocking system and the criminalization of contraband cell phones in state correctional facilities. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.38].
Other state prison systems are considering or testing the use of managed access systems to thwart contraband cell phones, including Texas and Mississippi.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, Central Valley Business Times, www.kcra.com, CDCR contract with Global Tel*Link, www.prisoncellphones.com
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