State corrections officials are going high tech to combat the problems of illegal cell phones making their way to inmates.
On Wednesday, the Mississippi Department of Corrections announced it has signed with Global Tel Link and Tecore Networks on a program to immobilize illegal cell phones used by inmates at the state penitentiary in Parchman.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said the system uses radio frequencies that intercept cell phone transmissions in defined areas but permits authorized and 911 calls.
Epps said contraband cell phones have become an issue at prisons across the United States, as inmates make calls for drug deals, witness intimidation, escapes and other criminal activities.
He said thousands of cell phones are confiscated in Mississippi prisons each year.
State's prisons test technology: Cell phones blocked behind bars
More than 200,000 calls, text messages prevented since August
Clarion-Ledger staff writer
More than 216,320 texts and cellular phone calls have been blocked from being delivered inside the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman since Aug. 6, thanks to cutting-edge technology unveiled Wednesday.
The system forms a radio frequency umbrella that intercepts cell phone transmissions in a specified area, preventing unauthorized communications from inmates.
"It's a big deal that we're first in the U.S. to employ this type of managed access system when there's a problem in virtually every prison and jail in the United States of America," Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.
MDOC negotiated so that its telecommunications provider, Global Tel*Link Solutions, and partner Tecore Networks would include a system to control cell phone usage without costing the state an additional dime, Epps said. "This system is worth over a half-million dollars in this process," he said.
So far this year, nearly 2,000 cell phones have been confiscated from Mississippi prisons. Last year, almost 3,600 cell phones were seized
In recent years, cell phones have been used in prison escapes, including from Parchman, Lee County and the Harrison County Community Work Center, Epps said. One escape culminated in the shooting of a police officer in Nashville. Also, cell phones have been used to call in hits on witnesses or possibly police officers, Epps said.
"In Baltimore, a man called in a hit on his witness and had him killed before trial," Epps said. "A death row inmate in Texas called the state senator, and when they took up the phone, the SIM card had more than 2,000 calls on it. And there's a reason to believe a captain in South Carolina was killed as a result of a cell phone."
GTL Marketing and Business Development Vice President Chris Tarbert said there are glitches in every system, but the Intelligent Network Access Controller, or iNAC, should prevent the unauthorized calls and let authorized calls out without a problem.
Tecore Networks marketing vice president Amit Malhotra said iNAC will allow authorized calls out of the protected area, but only after they have been recognized by the system.
"Any cell phones brought in register with our system before they go out to the tower of the commercial cell carriers," he said. "It will go through our system first and go through the database and see if it's an authorized phone. If it is, it'll be sent out to complete the call, but if it's not, it'll be held by our system."
Jamming radio signals is illegal, Malhotra explained.
"The difference between jamming and our system is that our system does not prevent all communications, just unauthorized ones," he said. "The other important thing about our system is that it's coordinated with all the cell carriers. ... We have to have agreements with carriers in order to do this. Because the carriers support us, the FCC supports us as well."
The system also logs the information and may be used for forensic analysis, officials said.
Instead of the inmate completing a call, a recorded message tells them, "the cellular device you are using at the Mississippi State Penitentiary has been identified as contraband and is illegal to possess under the criminal statute, 47-5-193. The device will no longer function."
Also important is that iNAC will not interfere with emergency communications coming from the same area.
Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin said the technology could be beneficial for his county jail.
"Everyone has problems with cell phones in jail," he said.
Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said cell phones have caused problems both inside and outside his facility.
"It causes disruption among the inmates," he said. "They'll get a phone in there, and they'll call people that don't want them calling."
But it's not just about preventing harassment, Rushing said.
"We haven't had it, but I know some agencies have seen it as a safety risk because they can set up ways to obtain contraband through the phone calls," he said.
In addition, increased cell usage results in less use of the jail phone systems, causing loss of valuable information and intelligence, officials said.
McMillin agreed that shutting down cell phone communication at a jail could be a positive thing all the way around.
"Staff too - I don't need to pay my staff for talking on the phone," he said. "If we can disable the cell phones, it will save us a lot of problems."
Why does Parchman have access to the program before anyone else in the continental United States?
"It's been a big issue for Mississippi for a long time, and we've worked on them with different solutions in the past, so it's been on the forefront for us as well," Tarbert said.
MDOC also plans to put the system in place at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County and the South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville.
Malhotra said his company has been quiet about the technology until Wednesday simply to make sure it was cleared for takeoff.
"Basically the prisons in this country have a legally acceptable and very powerful technology now to help them immediately disrupt contraband cell phones being used by inmates in the system," he said.
illegal cell phones
In the first half of this year, 1,994 illegal cell phones and 1, 412 cell phone accessories were seized by Mississippi Department of Corrections officials at the state's prison facilities. Also, there were 26 civilian arrests and 46 MDOC staff arrests made from 2007 through June 2010 of persons furnishing or attempting to furnish inmates with illegal cell phones.
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