Prison officials looking to hang up on inmates
States seek to jam illegal cell phones in violation of federal regulations
By Alex Johnson
updated 6:08 a.m. CT, Mon., Dec. 8, 2008
A persistent death row inmate in Texas could trigger a change in federal law allowing state and local governments to jam cell phone calls.
After an allegedly threatening call to a state senator led to the discovery that inmates had made thousands of calls on cell phones, which are banned in nearly all prisons nationwide, Texas officials have scheduled a test Dec. 18 of a system to jam such transmissions.
In general, federal law prohibits jamming cell phones. While regulators can make exceptions in certain circumstances for federal law enforcement agencies, the law specifically bans state and local governments from blocking the calls.
State prison officials said they were working with members of Congress to update the law, which they called outdated. Meanwhile, officials in South Carolina, who tested a jamming system last month at a state prison in Ridgeville, have filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission along the same lines.
The campaigns have shined new light on the problem of cell phones in prisons, which correction officials say is one of the toughest issues they face. The phones, smuggled in by guards or family members and activated with hard-to-trace prepaid calling plans, are a lifeline for criminals and gang members to order hits, buy drugs and plan escape attempts from behind bars.
“If you’ve got the ability to have a cell phone, you can go into our institutions, and whatever illegal activities you were doing outside, you can continue that uninterrupted,” said Walter A. McNeil, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.
Phones get smaller; problem gets bigger
As cell phones get smaller and lighter, they are becoming ever harder to keep out of prisoners’ hands.
Because most components in modern cell phones are plastic, they don’t set off metal detectors. And because the newest phones are so small — one manufacturer markets a lipstick-size model barely 7 centimeters long — they can easily be hidden in toilet paper rolls, peanut butter jars, soda cans and even prisoners’ rectums, a practice correction officials dub “keistering.”
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Officials in the California prison system confiscated 1,331 cell phones in the first six months of 2008, almost as many as were found in all of 2007. In Maryland, prison officials confiscated 849 cell phones during fiscal year 2008, an increase of 76 percent from 2007.
“It’s a significant problem that seems to be increasing,” said Ricky Bell, warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., where guards have confiscated 32 contraband phones this year. Statewide, Tennessee officials have found more than 600 cell phones so far in 2008.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Tennessee, where an inmate at Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros used a contraband cell phone to plan his escape in 2006. A guard was killed in the attempt.
In Texas, an investigation in October found that more than 2,800 calls had been made from death row on a single phone held by Richard Tabler, who was condemned for killing two people over Thanksgiving weekend in 2004.
Tabler triggered the investigation and a statewide prison lockdown when he placed calls to state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees the prison system.
In one of numerous calls he made to Whitmire and a newspaper reporter, Tabler told Whitmire that he wanted to report abuses on death row and said he knew the names of Whitmire’s daughters and where they lived.
“It’s very scary to have a convicted capital murderer on death row inquiring about my children by name,” Whitmire said after the lockdown and a cell-by-cell search that found 132 illegal phones in the prison system.
Whitmire said Tabler revealed just how easy it was for inmates to get hold of contraband phones. Tabler said he had paid a guard $2,100 to smuggle the phone into the prison, where he shared it with at least nine other death row inmates. He even helpfully told Whitmire that he had a charging cord.
Tabler’s mother was arrested and charged with paying the phone bill.
Cell phones becoming new prison ‘cash’
‘We’re talking about cell phones on death row’
At a hearing before Whitmire’s committee, prison officials revealed that they had investigated 21 other cases of cell phones’ being confiscated on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, leading to this frustrated eruption from Whitmire:
“Jam the damn things and let’s see what happens. What are they going to do? We’re talking about cell phones on death row.”
What “they” — in this case, the FCC — can do is hit the state with fines of up to $16,000 a day for violating the 1934 Communications Act, which bars state and local governments from interfering with federal airwaves, like those used by cell phones.
FCC officials said they were “open” to requests by Texas and South Carolina to reconsider the ban, which would require Congress to change the 1934 law. Until that can happen, several states are turning to phone-sniffing dogs.
In California, Harlen Lambert, a retired Santa Ana police officer, has trained 19 dogs to detect the aroma of a phone.
“It’s just like cooking,” Lambert said. “It’s like the different spices you put in food.”
Lambert said he had no idea “what alerts in their head,” but he said the dogs’ sense of smell was so acute that they could detect the residual scent of a phone after it had been removed.
Dogs sniffing for banned phones have made unannounced sweeps in all 14 of New Jersey’s prisons since mid-October, while Florida officials have hired their first dog, named Razor.
“He smells a combination of things within the cell phone,” said Kevin Dean, Razor’s trainer. “It’s a scent signature that has been identified through the network of the dog handlers.”
The goal is to close off prisoners’ every link to the outside criminal world, said correction officials in Maryland, which also uses dogs and has fired two prison employees for smuggling cell phones.
“Everyone thinks the fences keep people in, and that’s true. That’s our No. 1 priority,” said J. Michael Stouffer, commissioner of the state Division of Corrections. “But they’re also to keep things out.”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28055424/