Stopping the cellphones that foster jailhouse corruption

Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement of several actions he is taking to combat jailhouse corruption in the wake of the Black Guerrilla Family scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center is a positive step. It certainly would have instilled more confidence in the public if it had been his first reaction to the federal indictments of 13 corrections officers and 12 inmates — rather than his stunning assertion that the charges were a "positive development" in the fight against gangs — but better late than never.

He will need to put more detail to his plans to beef up security at the detention center and to consider revisions to disciplinary procedures for guards, and he would do well to heed Republican lawmakers' calls for an audit of the security in other Maryland correctional institutions. Indeed, the corrections department had taken some steps in that direction before this scandal broke. But there is one part of the governor's plan that merits particular attention: the expanded use of technology to block inmates' use of cellphones in correctional institutions.

Smuggled cellphones were certainly not the only problem at the detention center. Guards also smuggled in drugs, cigarettes and all manner of other contraband. But it is clear that the wide availability of cellphones behind bars helped take what might have been a low-level smuggling operation and turn it into a criminal enterprise that effectively ran the jail. Federal authorities allege that Black Guerrilla Family gang members used contraband cellphones to coordinate activities inside the jail with fellow BGF members on the outside. Cellphones were key to the flow of money into the jail, through the use of prepaid debit cards. Inmates used text messages to exchange code numbers for the cards — the preferred brand is Green Dot — allowing for the free transfer of money from one person to the next. That would have been difficult if not impossible to accomplish without easy access to cellphones.

The O'Malley administration has long been interested in finding ways to stop inmates from using cellphones behind bars and has tried a variety of tactics, including the use of cellphone-sniffing dogs. But a technological solution was elusive. Devices exist to block cellphone signals altogether, but their use is illegal under a 1934 law dealing with the disruption of radio transmissions. The governor and Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard lobbied for an exemption to the law for prisons, and officials conducted a successful test of the technology at a federal prison near Cumberland in 2010.

Later that year, the Senate passed a bill to allow use of the technology in prisons, but it died in the House amid opposition from wireless carriers who worried that it could disrupt legitimate signals outside prison walls and could block 911 calls. A 2010 report from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration found some validity to those complaints, though it also suggested that additional refinements to the technology could likely mitigate if not eliminate the problems.

Meanwhile, though, Maryland turned to a different technology, known as managed access. Rather than blocking the radio signals emitted by cellphones, it intercepts calls, texts and data transmissions made within a prison or jail and allows those from authorized numbers to connect to cell towers while stopping those from unauthorized phones. The approach has a variety of advantages over jamming: It can allow all 911 calls to go through, and it is less likely to have a bleed-over effect into areas outside the prison walls. (And even if it does, the system can be set up to send a message to the user explaining the reason for the blocked call.) More crucially, its use does not require authorization by Congress, and it has not drawn opposition from the wireless industry.

In 2011, the state entered into a contract with Hanover-based Tecore Networks for a pilot program at the Metropolitan Transition Center (formerly known as the Maryland Penitentiary), a structure that dates back to 1811 and sits in the middle of Baltimore City — the theory being that if it can work in those conditions, it can work anywhere. The system performed well enough in early tests that it began full operation in April. The state is paying Tecore just under $2 million to run the system for three years.

No one response will solve all of the problems related to the corruption scandal. The egregious misconduct among the corrections officers accused of participating in the scheme speaks to the need to review all manner of management and disciplinary practices, and most likely to fire far more than the few jail personnel who have been dismissed so far. But the cost of the call blocking technology is a small price to pay, given the scope of the problem. The O’Malley administration plans to put the technology in the detention center, and the governor should find funding to expand it statewide.

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