- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California’s high-tech solution to rid prisons of illegal cellphones may be unable to keep up with advances in technology quickly enough, so state officials have stopped plans to expand it to more prisons, officials told The Associated Press.

Inmates are not allowed to have cellphones because authorities say they can be used to coordinate attacks, and harass victims and witnesses. California began installing devices four years ago to prevent unauthorized cellphone signals from reaching their destination, effectively turning contraband phones into paperweights.

The problem is the switch by cellular service providers to what is commonly known as 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology, which uses new frequency bands. Carriers also are transmitting voice calls over what amounts to a Wi-Fi network. The prisons’ system doesn’t capture Wi-Fi, Skype or satellite transmissions, unless Skype and other social media applications are attempted through a cellular connection, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in response to The AP’s inquiries.

“It’s been difficult to make sure the technology can handle those upgrades,” said department spokeswoman Dana Simas. “Whether we’re going to scrap it or whether we can find solutions to these issues, that will be determined later.”

The state had planned to install the system at 33 of the state’s 34 prisons, but now it won’t be expanded beyond the 18 prisons where it currently is in place.

Global Tel-Link, the nation’s largest prison phone company, provides the service at no cost to taxpayers because the company recoups its cost from the fees inmates pay to make telephone calls using land lines.

The Reston, Virginia-based company can’t comment because it is negotiating with corrections officials, spokeswoman Megan Humphreys said in an email.

Despite frequent searches and the use of cellphone-sniffing dogs, cellphones are so common behind bars that 81-year-old cult killer Charles Manson was twice caught using smuggled phones to call people across North America from one of the state’s most secure facilities. Authorities say a visitor pleaded no contest in August to attempting to bring Manson a third phone concealed in a hidden compartment in a boot heel.

Concerns over whether the system would be able to keep up with technological advances were first raised five years ago in the state Senate, and a year later by the California Council on Science and Technology.

“They were foreseeable and they were in fact foreseen by a Senate report on the feasibility of this technology,” said Steven Meinrath, who at the time was counsel to the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Global Tel-Link so far has been able to upgrade its system as cellular service providers make changes, the department said.

“What remains to be determined is if the constant upgrades performed by the vendor will be sustainable in the future,” Simas said.

The number of phones seized at prisons has been dropping since California began installing the new system, from 15,000 phones in 2011 to fewer than 8,000 this year.

The system prevents 150,000 phone calls a week from going through at the 18 prisons where it is installed.


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