In late 2008, a Texas governor received threats over the phone from an inmate on death row. In 2005, two South Carolina escapees were found with cell phones — it is understood the cell phones aided the attempt. Throughout the country convicts in prisons and jails alike manage to continue an active role in gangs and illegal activities.
Offering his unique insight, "Here we are using cell phones, the No. 1 communicating device, and yet no one has ever thought about protecting ourselves from it as well," says Howard Melamed, president and CEO of Florida-based CellAntenna Corp.
"It's an ongoing problem," says Congressman Kevin Brady (R-Texas). "More and more states are experiencing it." Texas has endured thousands of calls from inmates, some to prosecutors, victims and state law makers.
"Here in South Carolina," says Communication Director Josh Gelinas of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, "[prisoners] have used the phones to coordinate successful escapes on repeated occasions — from medium and maximum security institutions." He adds his department has seen inmates conduct credit card fraud or worse in the country.
This communication threat has risen to such a level that the cell phone contraband is commonly referred to as the "new cash" for inmates — in prison a pre-paid cell phone can run hundreds of percent over the retail price.
"From one inmate alone, our studies show that 50 inmates make use of one cell phone," adds Melamed. "This is the new cash. This is the new problem within prisons."
Anthony Diallo, public affairs specialist of the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections agrees, "Perhaps the most dangerous contraband that can be found in any correctional facility here in Washington, D.C., or anywhere is the country is a cellular telephone."
Numerous correctional facilities have experienced the creative ways inmates sneak cell phones past guards and metal detectors. In South Carolina, Gelinas mentions inmates have found alternatives in transporting cell phones, whether through packaging or over a facility's fences. He explains that his department has recovered footballs carved open and stuffed with contraband such as cell phones, drugs, wire and fence cutters, etc.
As do all federal, state and local correctional facilities, South Carolina actively combats its contraband, but the existing cell phone presence creates its own paradox. Efforts are made to capture thrown-over contraband, yet inmates are able to precisely coordinate.
The combination of the cellular phone with convict entrepreneurship poses such a threat to public safety that many individuals — technological, correctional administration and governmental alike — have examined possible resolutions.
Current solutions include training K-9s to sniff out the cellular phone components, utilizing metal detectors, requiring all visitors and staff to relinquish belongings at security checkpoints, continued cell searches and utilizing cellular phone signal detectors to triangulate the outgoing signal.
South Carolina has been successful in stopping the flow of cell phones smuggled through its front doors by installing metal detectors and X-ray machines in all of its entrances, says Gelinas.
However, Melamed points out the unfavorable aspect of these solutions. "[They] involve the guards and correctional officers to be put into direct contact with the inmates — anyone in a prison facility or correctional institute would know you never want to do that."
George Camp, co-executive director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, offers his insight as well. He sees efforts such as emptying the pockets of visitors and staff and scanning packages the necessary process used to prevent drugs and weapons from coming into prisons.
However, he also notices the cracks in the system. "We've found that [cell phones] can be secreted and hidden in ways that make them very difficult to detect."