Magazine article Corrections Today

Can Technology Address the Contraband Cell Phone Problem?

Magazine article Corrections Today

Can Technology Address the Contraband Cell Phone Problem?

Article excerpt

News agencies frequently publish stories relating to the ever-increasing number of contraband cell phones found in prisons. Of greater concern than negative publicity is the serious threat to institutional security and public safety when inmates continue criminal activity by making unmonitored calls. To make matters worse, cell phone manufacturers continue to make the devices smaller and more feature rich. Text messaging, picture taking, and Internet capabilities add to the list of unmonitored activities inmates may access with a contraband cell phone. Despite some states criminalizing the use of cell phones in prisons, many reports note the continued widespread threat posed by contraband cell phones found inside secure prisons. Cell phone smuggling can be reduced by proven security measures in facilities such as metal detector and X-ray technology at the front entrance, mail room, warehouse and rear gate. Searches of staff, visitors and contractors are also necessary to reduce the introduction of cell phones. Other technology options being used or considered by agencies to detect or deter cell phone use include jamming, detection and forensic evaluation.



Jamming is a radio frequency (RF) technology used to disrupt cell phone signals. Although some vendors have offered jamming as a silver bullet solution, it is not a legal option. The Federal Communications Commission published a notice in June 2005 titled Sale or Use of Transmitters Designed to Prevent, Jam or Interfere with Cell Phone Communications is Prohibited in the United States. The notice specified that "the Communications Act of 1935, as amended, and the FCC rules prohibit the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale or operation of these [jamming] devices within the United States." Of particular interest are the penalties prescribed for jamming, which include fines of up to $11,000 a day for each violation and potential criminal prosecution.

What About Detection?

A number of vendors sell products that they claim can detect cell phones. Many of these devices were conceived as technical surveillance countermeasure (TSCM) equipment used to detect listening devices and transmitters in secure areas where classified information may be exchanged. TSCM equipment generally requires skilled, trained operators who are able to perform a careful, precise sweep of the area being screened. Most correctional environments consist of concrete floors and walls; miles of conduit and rebar; and a variety of steel cell doors and barred windows. This creates a challenging environment for which most TSCM equipment was not intended. Nonlinear junction detectors (NLJD) are one example of a TSCM designed to detect listening devices and cell phones concealed in walls. An NLJD detects any electronic device that contains a semiconductor, including cell phones. NLJDs range in cost from $15,000 to $20,000 each and require trained operators to use successfully. They emit an RF signal that triggers a signal indicating the presence of transistor-based technology such as cell phones. Some of these devices from different manufacturers were tested by the Bureau of Prison's Office of Security Technology (OST). OST found the brands tested to be difficult to use, and some of the products alarmed on numerous false targets. In addition, these devices lose much of their effectiveness in concrete and metal environments and may produce false alarms on locker rust, rebar, paper clips, food cans, and any electronic device such as a watch or small radio. The search process requires a painfully slow scan taking 45 minutes or more to search a cell. In light of the known limitations, a traditional cell search may be just as effective and less time-consuming.

An RF sensor-based technology has been developed by several companies to detect cell phone use in secure areas. This technology employs a computer network connected to RF sensors placed strategically around an area to be monitored. …

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