Friday, December 18, 2009

Maryland’s top corrections official says the department has no way of knowing how many contraband cell phones are in the hands of the state’s inmates after the number of phones confiscated by authorities more than doubled over the past two years.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary for the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the dramatic increase in the number of cell phones smuggled into Maryland prisons in the past two years far exceeds other contraband items like drugs or weapons.

“If you have one cell phone in a prison, somebody can get killed from use of that cell phone,” Mr. Maynard said during an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “We don’t know exactly what we don’t know about how many there are in there.”

A federal jury in Baltimore sentenced Patrick A. Byers Jr. to life in prison in April after the convicted drug dealer used a cell phone while incarcerated in a city jail in 2007 to plan the murder of a witness against him.

Mr. Maynard, who has served as corrections secretary since January 2007, said that incident is in large part why Maryland has been at the forefront of national efforts to prevent prisoners from getting their hands on smuggled cell phones. He said prisoners make money by charging other prisoners to use their cell phones and that inmates use phones to coordinate their activities within prisons.

Corrections officials have confiscated 3,635 cell phones in the past three years. Officials confiscated 741 phones in fiscal 2007, but that number jumped to 1,658 in fiscal 2009, according to agency statistics.

Mr. Maynard said he has spoken with corrections officials in other states, who were initially reluctant to admit cell phones were getting into their prisons. Maryland’s corrections department has used technology to detect and recover phones in prisons, and officials say they see signs that they are slowing the flow of contraband phones.

Mr. Maynard has also testified before the U.S. Senate in favor of legislation that has passed the Senate and is pending in the House that would allow jamming of cell phone signals around prisons.

The legislation is required because the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits state and local agencies from using jamming technology, which prevents cell tower transmissions from reaching phones.

Later this month, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to test telephone jamming technology in a Colorado bunker. Mr. Maynard said the test is a step in the right direction, but he hopes for a real-world trial of the technology.

He said the department has implemented other measures, including the use of specially trained dogs that can sniff out phones. Every prison facility is now equipped with a Body Orifice Security Scanner chair with which officials can scan inmates, visitors and staff members for electronic contraband.

Possession of a cell phone by a prisoner is a misdemeanor, which makes prosecution less likely. Mr. Maynard said the department is looking at targeted prosecutions to send a stronger message.

Mr. Maynard said vendors are also testing non-jamming technology that can trace phone signals and monitor transmissions. He emphasized that the different technologies are in the testing phase and he hasn’t drawn any conclusions about what technology would be the most effective.

“We don’t know the full value of jamming. We don’t know the full value of detection or signal modification,” Mr. Maynard said. “We just want to know what it can do.”

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