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Prisons aim to rid cells of mobile phones

Corrections officials across the country are trying to get cell phones out of prison cells. Officials say they're also used to orchestrate crimes, coordinate escapes and order retaliation against other prisoners.
Image: Practice for searching prison
Tazz, a 5-year-old springer spaniel trained to search prison cells for contraband cell phones, conducts a practice search at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, Md., with handler Sgt. Chris Caudell.Kristen Wyatt / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Corrections officials across the country are trying to get cell phones out of prison cells.

Maryland and Virginia have become the first states to train dogs to sniff out phones hidden in socks and books and under mattresses. Other states have passed bills to punish guards and visitors who provide them to inmates.

Inmates sometimes call family and friends with contraband phones. But officials say they're also used to orchestrate crimes, coordinate escapes and order retaliation against other prisoners.

In Nevada, a prison dental assistant was fired in 2005 for helping an inmate get a cell phone to plan a successful escape. In Florida, where authorities broke up a 2004 escape attempt involving a cell phone, prisoners have also been found using phones to threaten members of the public.

Texas has convicted more than a dozen officers in recent years for accepting bribes in exchange for cell phones or phone parts. And in Tennessee, prison officials banned jars of peanut butter after learning that an inmate accused in the shooting death of a guard had used one to hide the cell phone with which he coordinated his escape.

National statistics aren't available on how many cell phones are seized in prisons each year, but legislatures across the country are paying attention.

Florida and Maryland passed laws toughening penalties for providing cell phones for inmates. Texas this year became the last state in the nation to allow prisoners to use regular telephones, in part because there was such a large problem with contraband cells.

"Inmates are using cell phones to conduct criminal business," said Harlen Lambert, owner of All-States K9 Detection, a training facility in Fullerton, Calif. Lambert trained what are thought to be the nation's first phone-sniffing dogs for Virginia last year.

Maryland's three dogs, who were trained more recently, can even find cell phone SIM cards — which store phone numbers and text messages — and other components prisoners or guards may be hiding.

At a recent demonstration for reporters at a former state prison south of Baltimore, an English springer spaniel was able to find phones hidden under a mattress and stuck in a compartment carved into a book.

"I can't even tell you how many cell phones are in here or what damage they're doing," said Maryland Maj. Peter Anderson, a Canine Unit commander.

States are also stiffening penalties for officers who help prisoners get cell phones. Maryland's legislature made it a misdemeanor earlier this year, and Florida lawmakers made it a felony to possess cell phones improperly within a prison, a law that could apply to officers as well as inmates.

Texas officials say they have the nation's worst contraband cell phone problem. That state now allows sentences of up to 40 years for contraband cell phones in prison. John Moriarty, inspector general of the prison system there, says an officer was recently sentenced to five years for furnishing a cell phone.

In that case, Moriarty says, an undercover officer was offered $200 for a cell phone — and only $50 for heroin.

"Five years ago, if you'd told me a cell phone would get more than heroin, I'd say you were crazy," said Moriarty, who has some 400 pending cell phone contraband cases. "It's a huge problem."

Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, which represents young prisoners and their families in California, said inmates may turn to contraband cell phones because collect calls home are prohibitively expensive.

Her group and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California are pushing Los Angeles County authorities to end a phone company contract that they say makes it prohibitively expensive for relatives to take collect calls from inmates.

"It's not a good public safety move to disconnect people from their families like that, which makes people rely even more on an underground economy," McGill said. "Any time you make something unaffordable to families and unfair and unjust, you're going to contribute to contraband in prisons."

But in Florida, where cell phones have been tossed over fences into prison laundry facilities, corrections spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff says they can be deadlier than weapons.

"We are constantly after the cell phones," she said. "It really undermines the security for everyone there and for the public outside."