By Matt Clarke
In April 2013, Texas began intercepting cell phone calls originating in two of its largest prisons. The equipment installed at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont and the McConnell Unit in Beeville is intended to test the concept of detecting, intercepting and preventing the use of cell phones by prisoners and locating the offending cell phones.
The equipment, called a managed access system (MAS), also intercepts emails, text messages and attempts to log on to the Internet. Located in a closet near the warden's office, the heart of the MAS consists of two boxes of electronics, each a little larger than a microwave oven, and two rows of containers about the size and shape of CD cases. It connects to a single similar box in each monitored building. There are also cellular signal antennas, innocuous plastic squares, mounted on the roofs of the buildings.
"It behaves like a cellular tower," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) information technology director Mike Bell. "Based on ID numbers, if you're on [the] authorized list, it allows the call to go through."
The system allows all calls to 911 to go through, but the only non-emergency calls allowed are those from numbers authorized by prison officials. The system also notes how many calls were attempted and from what location, helping prison officials locate the contraband cell phones.
California installed MAS at the Avenal State Prison in November 2012. In its first month of operation, the system detected almost 4,800 unique contraband cell phones and intercepted 1.13 million unauthorized call attempts, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas.
The two test prisons hold about 5,000 prisoners. Still, they make up only a small portion of the 150,000 prisoners and 99 prisons in TDCJ. And the cost of one million dollars per prison gives some Texas legislators pause in these times of strained budgets and slow economic recovery. After all, only 630 cell phones were discovered in TDCJ in 2011 and only 738, including 110 at the Styles Unit, in 2012. The legislature has yet to approve the over $100 million it would cost to install such systems throughout TDCJ.
Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) is not among the critics. He famously received threatening phone calls from Texas death row prisoner Richard Tabler in 2008. The resulting political drama resulted in a system wide lockdown and shakedown for contraband cellular phones.
In February 2012, 17 guards and several members of the Raza Unida prison gang were arrested in connection with smuggled cell phones which had been used to facilitate drug trafficking, home invasions and contacts for the murder of witnesses. So maybe Whitmire's reaction to the high cost of managed access systems is understandable.
“So what, so what," said Whitmire. "Public safety costs money and I can't think of having a better use."
On the other hand, it is not his $100 million Whitmire is spending and there are certainly better uses for it. This is especially true when one considers that the system can neither detect nor intercept satellite phones and is only one change in cell phone technology away from becoming obsolete and worthless.
Sources: Associated Press, www.ks1.com, dfw.cbslocal.com
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