Cell phones are weapons in the hands of inmates.
Such was the effect of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s words at a Corrections Technology Association conference last year.
One might consider it hyperbole, but prison officials urge otherwise: Consider – an Alabama prison uprising filmed by inmates and posted to Facebook; the revenge killing of a young infant in Ga., orchestrated from a jail cell; the attempted assassination of a veteran S.C. prison official, a man shot six times in his own home as his wife looks on helplessly.
The common link? Each act was enabled or endorsed via cell phone connection from an inmate inside of a federal prison.
Increased contemporary technology of mobile devices such as Internet capability, cameras and video recorders has enabled users to capture and share data worldwide. In the hands of wards of the state, as well, the possibilities for connection are virtually unlimited. Inmates possessing contraband devices have been known to manage gang connections, intimidate witnesses, oversee drug trades, and – as in cases cited above – authorize hits and assassinations, all from within facility confines.
The California Department of Corrections recognizes this national problem as one growing within its own system. According to CDCR’s website, in Oct. 2011 Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed into action Senate Bill 26, which makes owning or bringing an unauthorized cell phone into prison a misdemeanor. Violation of the law carries a stiff penalty in the form of a $5,000 fine for those who gamble on smuggling devices into prisons, and inmates caught with them can lose up to 90 days’ credit for time served.
The CDCR has implemented canine sweeps, employing dogs trained to detect both narcotics and cell phones. In one year and a half span, approximately 955 cell phones alone were seized statewide, the site said.
Still, those figures only represent devices confiscated. Prisoners – ever with time on their hands – and their associates have invented new means of smuggling phones onto federal premises with some reported success.
Prison officials have related incidents of footballs containing devices being thrown over walls and supply caches of phones – data plans pre-installed – being stored in the woods surrounding rural facilities.
As no legislation currently exists to ban remote-piloted drones from being operated in the vicinity of prisons, associates of inmates have taken advantage of the burgeoning technology, employing relatively inexpensive civilian-grade drones to air-drop devices and other contraband.
Some instances even exist of contraband devices being hidden inside of dead animals such as birds and small mammals. When prisoner cleanup crews retrieve the carcasses, they reportedly manage to extricate the contents from them undetected.
Each device that gets through means more unauthorized – and often dangerous – communication on the part of inmates with the outside world.
This apparent capability of inmates to skirt conventional security measures has state corrections departments looking for outside assistance.
Securus Technologies, of Dallas, Tx., has offered at least one means by which unauthorized communication in the vicinity of prisons may be prevented. They’re calling them Wireless Containment Solutions.
Securus Chair and Chief Executive Officer Richard A. Smith cited the shortcomings of established methods involving canines, shakedowns and metal detectors. “(They) are only partially effective,” he said in a press release. “And ultimately leave the public vulnerable.”
The steep fiscal cost and manpower involved in human intervention places undue burden on any corrections system, he added, not to mention placing personnel in harm’s way. For an imperfect solution, the ends hardly justify the means.
Wireless Containment Solutions (WCS) function as an enhancement of similarly titled Managed Access Solutions (MAS), by which a localized cellular network is created at a prison. Any mobile device in the vicinity must access and be authorized by the system before connecting to a commercial service provider – think Sprint, Verizon or AT&T.
The systems employed by Securus boast of the capability to provide actionable intelligence regarding the source of attempted communications, enabling tracking to the initial call or transmission. This makes possible a sort of one-two punch, allowing for both prevention and subsequent confiscation of illicit devices.
The company has reported notable results in the past year. Between July of 2016 and 2017, Securus WCS’s detected and routed an excess of 1.7 million illicit communication attempts across a span of eight US facilities alone, a recent press release cited. One facility in particular reported phone call attempts in excess of 107,000 in the first two months following activation of the company’s method.
WCS developers are strident in distancing themselves from the term “jamming,” a process still classified illegal by Federal Communications Commission standards.
Indeed, the FCC has worked in conjunction with companies like Securus in recent months to ensure legislative compliance and increased efficiency in program development and implementation.
It’s a welcome and timely partnership, according to Smith.
“In March of this year, the FCC voted to streamline the process for correctional facilities to access contraband interdiction technology, like Securus’ WCS, by reducing the amount of paperwork and requiring wireless carriers to work with facilities,” he said in an August 14 press release.
“Securus has invested over $40 million and counting into WCS to date, and will continue to develop its proven solution to ensure that it continues to be the most effective means of eradicating contraband cell phones in our nation’s correctional facilities.”