Calif. prisons aim to disconnect unwanted calls

The plan has so many prongs in its approach, if one doesn't find a particular device, another one surely will

By Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has a plan to stop contraband cellphone usage called Operation Disconnect: install airport-style security on the outer perimeter, increase spontaneous searches, train and use more “sniffer” dogs, and use managed access technology to intercept calls. The plan has so many prongs in its approach, if one doesn’t find a particular device, another one surely will.

The number of cellphones confiscated inside California’s correctional system has steadily climbed for years, with more than 15,000 confiscated in 2011 alone, representing a huge increase from the 2,900 confiscated in 2006, according to Tim Vice, CDCR cellphone interdiction manager. Calls made from those phones likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

“We’re getting very good at searching, at figuring out how phones are being brought in, so we’re finding more phones,” says Vice, a 2012 alumnus of the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Technology Institute for Corrections. Increased searches and search dogs have accounted for much of the increase so far, but with the implementation of managed access, CDCR expects usage to drop even further.

CDCR launched a managed access pilot project in two facilities in early 2011, using ShawnTech Communications as the provider at no cost to the state. (Managed access allows only authorized phones to make calls. It is not jamming, which blocks all signals. Jamming cellphone signals is illegal in the United States.)

Vice says CDCR had to clear a few legal hurdles, including working with the state legislature to obtain passage of a bill making it a misdemeanor to smuggle cellphones into a correctional facility. (Previously, no law forbade individuals from bringing cellphones into a facility for distribution, even though inmates could not legally have the devices.) The department also needed to work closely with the Federal Communications Commission and various wireless carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Metro PCS and Sprint.

“All those pieces had to be put in place before we could get the system out there,” Vice says.

Was all of the hassle worthwhile? In the first 11 days of the pilot project, the managed access systems blocked 24,190 call attempts from 2,593 unauthorized phones. With the population at the two facilities in March 2011 totaling just more than 6,565, that could mean that two of every three inmates had an illegal device.

“This shows we have a huge problem out there,” Vice says. “We don’t consider this the magic bullet. It is part of CDCR’s multilayer security strategy. It doesn’t locate the actual devices, and they can still use the memory cards in the phones to transfer information even though they’ve been stopped from calling, texting and accessing the Internet. However, the value of a phone goes down greatly if you can’t get outside access, and that makes smuggling them into the institution less attractive.”

Following the successful pilot project, CDCR moved forward with a competitive procurement to implement managed access throughout the state. The contract was awarded to GTEL in April 2012. GTEL receives the fees that inmates pay for landline usage, and in turn, will build a managed access “umbrella” at each facility.

Since landline use went up by 64.8 percent during the pilot project, Vice says the contractor should see a revenue stream increase, and this supports the concept that inmate ward telephone systems contracts can support the installation of managed access. As of the end of 2012, permanent managed access had been deployed at the CDCR prison in Avenal for design and engineering validation, with phased deployment to CDCR’s other prisons to continue throughout 2013.

“Advocacy groups argue that inmates primarily use the phones to stay in touch with family and loved ones, but CDCR documented more than 199 harassment calls to victims outside the system in 2011,” Vice says.

And the fact that this problem is not unique to CDCR is borne out by the attendance at a CDCR-sponsored event, the 2011 National Public Safety Technology Conference: Coping with Contraband Cellphones in Correctional Settings and Navigating the Narrowbanding Mandate, held on March 10, 2011. The conference brought together regional and national experts in the fields of contraband cellphones and narrowbanding to demonstrate and discuss various interdiction methods, including managed access and K9 programs. Vice says that approximately 250 persons attended in person, and more than 750 others participated via Internet access, all of them eager to share ways to manage this growing problem.

For more information on Operation Disconnect, contact Tim Vice at (916) 255-2221 or For more information on the NIJ Technology Institutes for Corrections, contact NIJ Corrections Program Manager Jack Harne at (202) 616-2911 or

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