- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

Maryland officials are using dogs and tougher legislation to crack down on cell phones being smuggled into state prisons.

Maryland and Virginia have become the first states to train dogs to sniff out cell phones hidden in socks, under mattresses and in books. Maryland’s three dogs can even find cell phone SIM cards - which store phone numbers and text messages - or other cell-phone components used by prisoners to evade detection.

“I can’t even tell you how many cell phones are in here or what damage they’re doing,” said Maj. Peter Anderson, a Canine Unit commander with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Contraband cell phones are used to orchestrate crimes, coordinate escapes and order retaliation against other prisoners, officials say.

In Nevada, a prison dental assistant was fired in 2005 for helping an inmate get a cell phone to plan an escape. In Florida, authorities broke up a 2004 escape attempt from a state facility that involved a cell phone, and prisoners there have 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 components.

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 enacted laws toughening penalties for providing cell phones for inmates. Texas this year became the last state in the country to allow prisoners to use regular telephones, in part because Texas had such a large problem with contraband cells.

Harlen Lambert, owner of All-States K9 Detection, a training facility in Fullerton, Calif., last year trained for Virginia what are thought to be the country’s first phone-sniffing dogs.

He declined to explain how the dogs are trained, but said they can differentiate between cell phones and other electronics.

In Maryland, the dogs were trained using an old-fashioned system of rewarding them for finding cell phones or components.

States also are 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 county’s worst contraband cell-phone problem. The state can give a maximum sentences of 40 years for cell-phone contraband in prison.

John Moriarty, inspector general of the prison system there, said an officer was recently sentenced to five years for furnishing a cell phone.

He also said the undercover officer was offered $200 for a cell phone and only $50 for heroin.

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