Drugs were once the contraband of choice of prisoners. These days, corrections officials are on the lookout for a more high-tech scourge — cell phones.
Cell phones have been used to help at least two inmates escape from minimum-security conservation camps. Prison investigators fear they also are being used by gang leaders to order assaults on other inmates and employees and to coordinate the timing of prison uprisings.
Richard Subia, California's associate director for adult prisons, called cell phone use in state prisons "one of the most severe security issues that we have right now."
It's been a problem in prisons across the United States.
A condemned inmate in Texas used a smuggled cell phone to make a threatening call to a state senator in October. Authorities say a drug dealer behind bars in Maryland used a phone to arrange to have a witness assassinated outside his home last summer.
In Kansas, a convicted killer sneaked out of prison after planning the 2006 escape using a cell phone smuggled by an accomplice. The following year, two inmates escaped another Kansas prison with the help of a former guard and a smuggled cell phone.
California prison officials confiscated about 2,800 cell phones statewide last year, double the number discovered the year before. Inmates can be punished for having them but have found ingenuous ways to hide them.
Guards have found duffel bags full of cell phones hidden near prison fences and in garbage sacks thrown over prison walls. Unscrupulous guards looking for a quick buck have brought them in by the dozens to sell to inmates.
Officials in California and other states are lobbying for a Federal Communications Commission waiver so they can use jamming devices to disrupt cell phone signals inside prisons. The effort has been unsuccessful so far.
Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland are using cell phone-sniffing dogs. This week Caeser, a 5-year-old black and tan Belgian Malinois, was to begin working at California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville.
State corrections officials are also supporting a bill by state Sen. John Benoit that would make it a misdemeanor to smuggle a cell phone into a prison or to possess one as an inmate.
"They need the teeth of a statute, a crime, to really make it stick," said Benoit, a Republican from Palm Desert who had a career in law enforcement before joining the Senate.
He said use of cell phones is allowing gang leaders to continue their operations from inside prison walls.
Currently, inmates caught with phones can lose 30 days of good behavior credits.
If Benoit's bill becomes law, that will triple to 90 days. As further punishment, inmates also could lose privileges and be shipped to isolation cells.
Phones have become so cheap that disposables can be bought for $7 at a convenience store.
Some are so tiny they are concealed in wristwatches. Prison officials have found them hidden in cereal boxes, hollowed out books and legal documents, and in false bottoms of shipping boxes.
Guards have found cell phones in toilets, portable fans, light fixtures, televisions and radios, often with the phone charger wired into the electronic device.
"You think they're singing to the radio — they're talking on the cell phone. It's just amazing," said Lt. Robin Bond, an investigator at the Vacaville prison. "You've just got to shake your head sometimes: How do they come up with this stuff?"
One confiscated phone revealed text messages announcing the arrival of a new inmate. An investigator was surprised when a different confiscated cell phone rang on his desk: It was an inmate calling from another prison.
Most cell phones can take photographs and videos that can give away prison security secrets or transmit guards' pictures to accomplices on the street.
Officials said prisoners can charge other inmates up to $50 per call for use of their cell phone.
"It used to be we were trying to find drugs. Now it's cell phones. It's a more lucrative business," Bond said.
Last year, a 22-year veteran guard at the Vacaville prison resigned after admitting that he brought in phones almost every day for inmates, earning $100 to $400 for each phone. He admitted pocketing more than $100,000 from the scheme.
Since 2006, eight Vacaville prison employees who were caught bringing in cell phones for inmates have been fired or resigned. That includes a medical records clerk caught with seven phones stuffed into her socks and bra last January.