Maryland corrections officials are taking advantage of new technology designed to block the use of contraband cellphones by inmates — a problem at the heart of recent indictments at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
In a program being used at another prison facility in Baltimore, phones smuggled inside have been severed from the network and rendered inoperable, officials said. The new system, which the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services hopes to expand, could supplement efforts to find the phones using metal detectors or trained dogs to sniff them out.
The department says it is catching more illicit phones than ever — more than 1,300 were found in the last fiscal year — but the federal indictments show the limits of those efforts. The blocking technology promises to render contraband phones useless, while still letting staffers make calls.
"We're very happy with the testing results and we see it actively working," said department spokesman Rick Binetti. "It certainly would be another tool in the arsenal that we've already got that we're using to stop gang activity inside the prisons."
According to the indictments, gang leader Tavon White organized a lucrative smuggling ring from the jail, placing orders and receiving payments directly to his cell phone. Twenty-five people were charged in the case, including 13 female corrections officers at the detention center.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said recently that he wants to expand the use of the blocking technology as part of a plan to tackle corruption and gangs behind bars. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said he will push for money to fund the expansion if necessary.
A 1934 federal law bans the jamming of cellphone signals in prisons and jails, and attempts in Congress to amend the law have run into opposition from wireless companies. But Maryland is among a few states pioneering a technology that lets through calls made by jail employees, while blocking those from contraband phones.
The phones have been a growing problem since the mid-2000s, according to the corrections department, which has made various attempts to stem the tide. In 2009 the agency spent $1.1 million on entrance security, it has trained phone-sniffing dogs, and it received a grant for the Baltimore state's attorney's office to prosecute inmates found with phones.
The number of phones intercepted has grown each year since 2010. But the blocking technology is promising because it can blanket an entire facility.
"We're just basically making their phones into paperweights," said Kenneth North, vice president of government relations at Tecore Networks, which developed the technology.
The pilot program at the Metropolitan Transition Center, an aging gothic prison adjacent to the Baltimore City Detention Center, began last year. The state awarded Columbia-based Tecore $2 million to test and run the blocking system for three years. The pilot ended in April and since then the system has been working full-time, Binetti said.
"The infrastructure there is … pretty old," he added. "The department figures if it works there we can make it work anywhere else throughout system."
Encouraged by the results, state officials say getting it up and running in the detention center is a top priority in the wake of the gang indictments.
North, who retired as director of investigations at the Mississippi corrections department last year, said the system works by sending out a signal that is more attractive to phones than the commercial networks.
The regular phone network is still there, North said, but only emergency calls and those made with phones on a list maintained by prison administrators can reach it. All others are blocked.
White kept up to two cellphones on hand at any time, according to documents in the federal case. FBI investigators said gang members used them to communicate with Black Guerrilla Family leaders outside, coordinate smuggling and receive text messages with payment in the form of codes on prepaid debit cards.
Specially trained K-9 dogs, which sniff out cellphones, caught White with a phone last November, but he quickly got resupplied, according to court documents filed in the federal cases.
"They knocked my big phone off … they took that yesterday, K-9," White said, according to a intercepted call summarized in the filing. "I got another touch-screen though already."
The dogs also missed another phone, White said. "I still had this one, they ain't get this yet."
Gang members allegedly relied on corrupt corrections officers to buy the phones and set up their accounts. One inmate reminded a female officer to bring him a charger, the right kind of SIM card for a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, and $50 worth of minutes, investigators wrote in court documents. The inmate "said he would give her the money and help her buy a pair of boots as a thank you," FBI agents wrote in the filing.
White wanted to use his phone to get online, according to the documents, but North said Tecore blocks out data as well as calls and texts.
Tecore has used the same technology at a Mississippi prison for a few years and said it has successfully blocked millions of calls. Other tests have blocked hundreds of calls and text messages an hour, according to the company, but a figure for the Baltimore test was not available.
Grace S. Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi corrections department, credited the blocking system with helping to reduce crime at the facility where it's installed.
The technology avoids a conflict with the federal law that prohibits intentional interference with licensed radio equipment.
The leading wireless trade group, CTIA, has said that contraband cellphones — not telecommunications — are a problem for prison security. The group has pushed against jamming in other venues as well, notably movie theaters.
But the industry has not opposed the newer technology. Asked about the issue, the group sent a statement noting that, "as we have seen from successful demonstrations and deployments across the country, non-interfering technologies, such as cell detection and managed access, are lawful, scalable and available today."
The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, has been working on the issue for years. Earlier this month the agency proposed streamlining required approvals to make it easier for systems like Maryland's to be implemented.
Other FCC proposals would establish procedures allowing wireless providers to more efficiently terminate service to phones inside a prison once detected, said Cheng-yi Liu, a communications attorney with Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth in Virginia.
The FCC is soliciting public comment on the proposals.
Shutting down contraband cellphones would not cut off gang members entirely from the outside world, but U.S Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said it would have a major impact on limiting gang operations.
"When the gang members are incarcerated they would be separated from the gang," he said. "I think that would have a beneficial impact beyond the prison walls."
Jails and prisons let inmates use landline phones, but calls made on them are recorded and sometimes end up providing law enforcement with evidence in criminal cases.
Those recordings formed part of another federal gang case unsealed recently. Investigators say Bloods gang leader Michael Johnson used cellphones to organize drug deals and other business at a state-run facility for federal detainees near the Baltimore jail.
When Johnson's gang became worried that the calls were being recorded, they sought one final refuge, according to investigators: the mail.
Sun Reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.