This article is a discussion of the problem of contraband cell phones in Ohio prisons. Same issues as everywhere else with the same lack of solutions. However, a secure cell phone service is a solution to the contraband prison cell phone problem. With meshDETECT, the demand for illegal wireless devices is reduced, thereby reducing the contraband value of smuggled cell phones for those who supply them. That means less reward for the same risk and eventually supply will be minimized.
California prison officials have twice caught Charles Manson — the cult leader who masterminded a 1960s murder rampage — with a smuggled mobile phone after he chatted with folks across the country.
In Texas, prison officials seized a smuggled phone after a death row inmate called a state senator looking for help with his appeal.
And in South Carolina, after a prison official was ambushed at his home and nearly killed, authorities determined prisoners used a smuggled phone to organize the attack.
Smartphones, cellphones and other mobile devices are the most dangerous tools in prison, and officials haven’t found a way to keep them out, said Martin Horn, a former commissioner of New York City’s corrections department who now teaches at John Jay College.
“The purpose of imprisonment is to separate criminals from society, and these phones wipe that away,” Horn said. “You can access anything on the Internet, and that presents an enormous and growing challenge.”
In the first four months of 2010, Federal Bureau of Prisons workers confiscated 1,188 cellphones. Many state prisons also were overwhelmed. Guards in California’s prisons, for example, seized more than 8,500 smuggled phones in 2010.
That dwarfs Ohio’s numbers — about 100 phones seized in prison last year — but the trend is picking up here. Between January and May, Ohio authorities reported seizing about 100 phones, said Vinko Kucinic, the chief security threat investigator at the Ohio Department of Corrections.
How do the phones — considered contraband — make it inside?
• Friends or family of inmates stuff phones inside footballs and hike the balls over fences into prison yards for inmates to pick up.
•Visitors hide the phones in diapers a baby is wearing or in a body cavity.
•Corrupt prison guards bring them in, including a California guard who told state investigators he made more than $100,000 in one year from smuggling phones.
For guards, it’s a low-risk, high-profit venture, Horn said.
Smuggling cocaine or heroin to inmates is dangerous because if you’re caught — on or off prison grounds — you’re breaking the law.
But carrying a phone isn’t illegal to start with. And if a guard leaves a phone on a windowsill and an inmate picks it up, it’s often difficult for prison authorities to prove smuggling, Horn said.
Inmates often pay from $300 to $1,500 for a smuggled phone, Horn and other prison security experts say.
In Ohio prisons, inmates hide phones in hollowed-out books or secret compartments in their cells. They also hide shared phones in public spaces where inmates gather, Kucinic said.
How Dimorio McDowell — the federal inmate who ran an organized retail theft operation in Northeast Ohio from his New Jersey prison cell — received his phones or how he hid them from guards is unclear.
Prison officials at Fort Dix declined to answer questions, saying details could compromise security.
Many prison officials say it’s impossible to keep phones away from the 2 million inmates in the U.S. The solution, some have suggested, is to jam phone signals in prisons, making the phones useless.
But the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry says that would be illegal under the Federal Communications Act of 1934 — which prohibits blocking signals.
Mississippi found a compromise — managed access. A computer network there tracks all calls and texts coming in and going out of prisons.
If someone tries to use an unauthorized phone, calls and texts are blocked. In the first six months, the system blocked nearly 650,000 calls at one prison.
But managed access has its drawbacks, Horn cautioned. It’s expensive and, eventually, it will be hacked.
“Just because you’re a prison inmate doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” Horn said. “They’ll figure out a way to get around it.”