Pilot program targets keeping cell phones out of prisons
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Screenings will launch next month in Baltimore

Maryland is testing out a new technology that will render cell phones smuggled into prisons useless, lawmakers and correctional officers said this week.

The state will pay Columbia-based Tecore Networks almost $2 million to install a “cell phone managed access system” that will screen all cell phone signals coming into the Metropolitan Transition Center, a medium-security prison in Baltimore, starting May 3.

If the program is successful after a 60-day trial, the contract will continue for three years. Half of the cost will be covered by federal funding.

The state will decide whether to expand the program to other facilities after the pilot.

The use of unmonitored phones by inmates has reached epidemic levels in correctional facilities across the country, posing a threat to public safety, correctional officers and inmates, said Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services.

“Inmates who have smuggled cell phones into prison are able to continue to communicate with persons on the streets nd] in some cases committing crimes while they’re in prison,” Maynard said.

The system approved Wednesday is a work-around to jamming technologies, which are prohibited by The Communications Act of 1934.

As opposed to jamming, which stops all signals and can affect surrounding communities, Tecore’s technology will catch incoming signals and analyze them in a millisecond. If the signal is coming from or going to a number that’s been authorized by the prison, the call will go through without the receiver knowing it was analyzed.

If it’s not an authorized number, the technology will block the call without the caller knowing it was blocked. “It will just seem like a dropped call,” Maynard said. “And the person who was called will never know the call was made.”

The department will determine how to use the system and whether searches or other actions will be sparked when cell phones are blocked during the 60-day pilot, said Erin Julius, a department spokeswoman.

The Tecore system has successfully been deployed by the Mississippi Department of Corrections since 2010, when 216,320 calls from as many as 600 phones were blocked in the first month. California prison officials announced this week that a similar screening program would be undertaken there.

Telecommunications industry lobbyists oppose jamming technologies because they could disrupt service outside a targeted area and create chaos in emergency situations. CTIA - The Wireless Association supports managed-access technologies, calling the Mississippi program a “tremendous success.”

Keeping cell phones out of prisons became a priority for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2007 after Patrick Albert Byers Jr., who was in jail awaiting trial for a 2006 homicide, used a cell phone to place a hit on key eyewitness Carl Stanley Lackl, who was later gunned down outside his Baltimore home.

In subsequent years, Maryland has become one of the leading states in fighting contraband cell phones, said Tod W. Burke, a professor of criminal justice and an associate dean at Radford University in Virginia.

Maryland uses a number of metal detectors, scanning devices and X-rays to search for cell phones at correctional facility entrances and was the first state to train cell-phone sniffing dogs to recover contraband from cells, Maynard said.

Prisoners who accept smuggled phones and outsiders who deliver or attempt to deliver smuggled phones can be charged with a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $1,000 fine, according to state law.

Since 2007, more than 6,000 phones have been discovered inside Maryland correctional facilities.

When smuggled cell phones are found, the department uses card readers to analyze all the data, including photographs and text messages to document and understand criminal behavior.

“We have staff continually getting intelligence,” Maynard said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), a proponent of reining in illegal cell phones in prisons applauded the pilot program.

“States shouldn’t have to sit idly by as gang members plot murders and other ghastly crimes from jail,” Mikulski said. “The men and women charged with keeping our communities safe must have the tools they need to combat illegal cell phone use on the inside and protect our neighbors and families on the outside.”