The concerns about these contraband devices came into the national
spotlight this month when U.S. officials accused a member of the
notorious Bloods gang serving a life sentence in North Carolina of
using a mobile phone hidden in his prison cell to arrange the
kidnapping of the father of a woman who prosecuted him.
There are no widely available reliable figures on how many
cellphones are in the hands of the 2.3 million inmates in local,
state and federal prisons in the United States, but statistics point
to a swift rise of the problem.
In California, for instance, the number of contraband cellphones
discovered by corrections staff jumped to more than 15,000 in 2011,
more than 10 times the 1,400 seized in 2007.
"Prison officials used to have to worry about cigarettes and drugs
and other weapons. Now it's cellphones," said Tod Burke, a criminal
justice professor at Radford University in Virginia. "Make no
mistake about it, the cellphones are as dangerous or even more
dangerous than the other contraband."
States are taking a variety of steps to crack down on prison
cellphone possession, starting with passing laws that make it a
crime, said Burke, a former police officer.
In addition to using metal detectors, X-ray body scanners, pat downs
and WiFi signal searches, many enlist police dogs trained to sniff
HIDDEN IN BASKETBALLS
In March, Mississippi's corrections department said it would spend
$1.3 million to install high netting barriers at its prisons to keep
items from being lobbed over fences.
Cellphones are sometimes hidden inside basketballs, footballs or
tennis balls, even delivered by shooting an arrow over the wall,
Mississippi plans to expand use of technology that allows
authorities to block unauthorized calls within a prison. The system
has stopped nearly 6 million illegal cellphone calls and texts since
its 2010 launch, according to the state.
"I lose a lot of sleep worrying about cellphones," Mississippi
Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, who serves as president
of the American Correctional Association, said in a statement. "We
have proof they have been used in escapes, to put hits out on
people, and for other criminal activities."
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Maryland officials also said this year that they had purchased
"managed access" technology for the city detention center in
crime-plagued Baltimore as part of an intensified push against
A federal indictment in November said the proliferation of
cellphones enabled leaders of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang
to coordinate crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering and
murder from the Baltimore jail.
In North Carolina, law enforcement officials said prison inmate
Kelvin "Dizzy" Melton used a mobile phone to give instructions on
how to kill a prosecutor's father and dispose of his body.
Kidnappers snatched Frank Janssen, 63, from his home in Wake Forest
on April 5 and held him hostage in an Atlanta apartment until
federal agents rescued him four days later. Eight people, including
Melton, have been charged in the abduction.
Law enforcement officials would not comment on how Melton obtained
the cellphone, but said he smashed it when authorities arrived to
confiscate it. An investigation is ongoing, North Carolina prisons
director George Solomon said.
"This has been an ongoing battle for several years," Solomon said.
"It's a major security problem for us."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Scott Malone and Gunna
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