Illegal cellphones becoming so prevalent in prisons that convicts’ mothers are calling wardens and demanding to know why reception is so poor inside the facility.
Hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of inmates inside U.S. prisons have gotten ahold of cell phones. Many spend the evenings chatting away in their cells. It’s a problem many prison officials don’t want to talk about. That’s because what’s more troubling than what the inmates are doing with the cell phones is how they got them in the first place.
Three weeks ago, Maryland state Sen. Ed DeGrange was sitting at his desk when the phone rang. The caller was an inmate from a nearby prison with a list of complaints. But he wasn’t calling from the prison pay phone. He was calling from a mobile phone in his cell.
DeGrange says his first thought when he heard that was, "You’ve got to be kidding me."
"He even went as far as to leave a number," he adds.
A Widespread Problem
Last month, a warden in Texas also got a call — from the mother of one of his inmates. She was calling to complain that her son was getting poor cell-phone reception inside the prison.
"She was paying for the service, and she felt that she should get good service out of the prison," says John Moriarity, the inspector general of the Texas prison system. "That cell-phone company assured her it was within the coverage area, and she wanted to know why they were having some difficulty getting a good cell-phone signal out of the prison."
That cell phone was one of more than 300 that Texas prison officials have pulled out of inmates’ cells in the past three years. Moriarity says it’s not just happening in Texas and Maryland.
"I’ve spoken to some of my fellow [inspectors general] across the country, and I believe everybody’s having a problem with it," he says.
In several criminal cases, inmates have used cell phones to run gangs operating outside of prison, to put hits out on people, to organize drug-smuggling operations and, in one case, trade gold bullion on international markets.
Corruption Within the System
Ojore Lutalo is serving 30 years for aggravated robbery at the New Jersey State Prison. He says lots of inmates have cell phones. Most use them to talk to family members. Lutalo says they’re easy to get.
"It’s a simple process," he says. "It’s not a big deal getting a cell phone."
Lutalo, speaking from a prison pay phone, says inmates merely have to pay a one-time fee of $500 to a corrupt correctional officer.
"You have to understand that that is possible due to the level of corruption among the prison staff," Lutalo says. "If it wasn’t for their corruption, it wouldn’t be possible."
Former and current prison officials across the country agree. They say for the most part, prison staff are to blame. Unlike drugs and cash, which can be smuggled in through the mail and inmate visits, it takes someone on the inside to get a phone past the prison metal detectors.
‘A Huge, Complex Issue’
New Jersey prison officials wouldn’t say how many phones they have confiscated this year. But prison spokesman Matt Schuman acknowledged that cell phones are a significant problem in the state’s prisons — and they’re often tied to correctional officers.
Maryland prison officials also declined requests for an interview. But Bill Sondervan, who ran the state’s prison system until 2003, says that even three years ago, prison officials were finding two or three cell phones a week.
"You found that inmates not only had a cell phone that someone smuggled into them, but they also had a charger," Sondervan says. "When you look at it, you would have to think that, probably, it’s happening more through staff, because staff would have the better opportunity to bring them in."
Sondervan says that in most cases, an inmate’s family or gang members set up a calling plan, pay the bills and pay an officer to smuggle the phone in.
"It’s a huge issue, and it’s a complex issue," he says, adding, "I had 8,000 employees in 27 prisons. I couldn’t be everywhere. And the way you really do that is through trying to instill in your staff that we’re all in this together."
That’s one way to keep cell phones out of prisons. Another is to jam all cell-phone signals, but officials have found that usually interferes with officers’ radios and other critical equipment. So a few prisons in the country have turned to technology used by U.S. spy agencies.
I Spy a Cell-Phone Call
At their corporate offices in Columbia, Md., technology experts Terry Bittner and Min Liu stare at a computer screen. A little green circle is flashing on a computer blueprint of their office complex. The circle marks where someone in a cubicle is making a cell-phone call.
Liu and Bittner work for EDO Corp., which does mostly classified work for the Defense Department and intelligence agencies. But four years ago, the Federal Bureau of Prisons asked if EDO had anything that could detect cell phones. The company spent the last three years building a system that could work in a prison, using their offices as a test site. Liu points to a little black box hanging on the wall. It scans radio frequencies, looking for cell-phone transmissions.
In a prison, when the black box detects a cell signal, it sends an alert to the security chief. Next month, EDO will officially launch the system in a prison — though it’s not allowed to disclose which one.
Over the past year, Liu and Bittner have tried a few test runs in several prisons. Bittner was shocked by what they found, even in places with the highest security.
"The maximum-security section looked like a telemarketing center," Bittner says. "There were so many calls going on…You would see, as the rates went down at night, the number of calls would jump up. On the free weekends, the calls would go up. So it was pretty unbelievable."
EDO’s system is one of only two that are commercially available. The systems can cost several hundred thousand dollars per prison. But as cell phones get smaller and harder to trace, prison officials may have few other options.
And if Texas is any guide, there may soon be an even bigger problem: Officials there are now on the lookout for Blackberrys.
A cell phone shows up on an x-ray.