La. jailers fight scourge behind bars: cellphones

Prisons crack down on contraband cellphones

At Orleans Parish Prison, officials have set their sights on a system that would block calls and text messages from contraband cellphones. In Shreveport, full-body scanners recently caught an inmate smuggling a phone in his rectum. In Baton Rouge, pre-trial detainees now shuffle past a portable device known as “the tower” that can sense cellphone components sometimes missed by conventional metal detectors.

As the latest iPhones turn up in facilities as secure as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana lockups are looking beyond traditional tactics like shakedowns and strip searches to a growing field of technology designed to detect cellphones and keep them out of the hands of inmates — or to make them unusable.

The number of cellphones found in state prisons has quadrupled since 2009, and state and local officials are seeking new means of prevention within their limited budgets.

“There are certainly more efforts to get cellphones in prisons,” said Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, “but some of the uptick (in the number discovered) can probably be attributed to the fact that we also beefed up our efforts to find them, since they’re becoming increasingly more of a contraband issue.”

State corrections officials, who also are training dogs to sniff out cellphones, “hope to at least pilot detection equipment in the upcoming fiscal year so we can determine the best use of our dollars,” Laborde said. They have researched CellSense, the portable device that’s been used for about six months in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, as well as detection systems that would alert wardens to cellphone use inside their facilities.

“We find cellphones with inmates almost daily,” said Burl Cain, the longtime Louisiana State Penitentiary warden, who blames corrupt correctional officers for much of the proliferation. “We found one today. We found one over the weekend.”

Officials seized 90 cellphones in state prisons during the 2010 fiscal year, a figure that ballooned to 384 in fiscal year 2013, according to corrections officials. “There’s just been astronomical growth in inmates trying to receive cellphones in jails,” said Lt. Col. Bobby Webre, who served as warden of the Ascension Parish Jail for 16 years.

An international problem

The problem is far from unique to Louisiana, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. “This is an international issue,” Burke said. “Every state that has a jail or prison has been trying to deal with cellphones as contraband.”

Beyond bribing guards, inmates have gone to great lengths to sneak cellphones into jails, as underscored last month by the efforts of Anthony Alvey, the 22-year-old inmate who admitted secreting a phone in his rectum upon his transfer to the Caddo Parish Correctional Center.

Frank Ellis, a former warden in Iberia Parish, recalled a similar attempt that might have been successful had his deputies not received a reliable tip. Jailers searched the inmate, a trusty returning from a work detail, but could not find the Motorola Razr, even with the help of metal detectors.

“We knew he had it and were pretty sure where it was,” Ellis said recently, “but nobody wanted to go in and get it.” Deputies placed the inmate in a holding cell and fed him, Ellis added, “until, finally, he had to pass it.”

“It’s probably the biggest contraband problem in any jail or prison,” he said of cellphones. “It’s almost impossible to stop.”

It’s not just a matter of spoiling inmates’ fun. Contraband cellphones can have nightmarish consequences for pending prosecutions. For every phone that’s confiscated, untold others make their way behind bars, providing inmates an unmonitored means to harass victims, intimidate witnesses, plot escapes and continue criminal enterprises as if they were still on the streets. “There’s all sorts of things a cellphone would be handy for,” Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator said. “It’s just as ominous as a weapon.”

In 2009, a jailed associate of Telly Hankton, the New Orleans crime lord, allegedly used a smuggled cellphone inside Orleans Parish Prison to order the killing of a key witness. Earlier this year, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said authorities were trying to figure out how a cache of more than a dozen smartphones ended up inside OPP. Last week, a former Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy pleaded guilty in federal court to providing cellphones and marijuana to inmates in 2008 in exchange for cash payments.

Strong temptation

“That $50 cellphone might sell for $200, so you have a $150 temptation to the correctional officer or the visitor who’s coming into the prison,” said Cain, the Angola warden. “We pay our correctional officers horrendously low, and that doesn’t help at all. One bad apple can just kill you until you catch them.”

Prosecutors cull invaluable information from monitoring recorded jailhouse calls, a window that’s closed when inmates are passing a mobile phone around their tier. “In many cases, they will talk about their crimes and their involvement in the crimes” on the jail’s land phone lines, Cannizzaro said earlier this year. “They’re essentially giving us confessions.”

If the district attorney had his druthers, cellphones would be rendered useless within the walls of correctional facilities. Law enforcement officials, however, are prohibited by federal law from jamming cellphone signals, as is done in other countries.

A fight has been waged in Congress for years over an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 that would allow authorities to jam signals inside correctional settings — technology that exists and has been tested. Opponents of jamming, including wireless companies, contend it’s an imprecise technique that could disrupt public-safety communications and impact people who live around a targeted facility.

“It really is a toss-up,” said Burke, the Radford University professor, referring to the give-and-take of public safety. “When you’re dealing with jamming, you have to look at the bigger picture.”

With the prospects of jamming uncertain, some states, including Mississippi and Maryland, are using a new technology often referred to as “managed access,” a system like a gatekeeper that captures calls before they get to the network, allowing communications from authorized devices while blocking calls from contraband cellphones. Laborde, the DOC spokeswoman, said Louisiana corrections officials looked into that approach but determined it would cost “well over $15 million to implement managed access at all state facilities, which is just not in the cards given our current budget.”

A question of cost

In New Orleans, jail administrators are similarly mindful of costs, but officials have spoken at length with the company that provides the service at the long-troubled Baltimore City Detention Center, which was rocked by a notorious scandal in which inmates armed with contraband cellphones essentially controlled the jail.

“We’ve had talks after talks after talks with these folks,” said Michael Tidwell, Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, adding that the company sent representatives to tour the new 1,438-bed jail building scheduled to open later this year.

Funding remains far from certain, however, and it’s unclear whether the Sheriff’s Office will be able to afford the technology. “We’re going to have to work as hard as we can to try to find the funding to do this,” Tidwell added. “In my opinion, as a practitioner, this is the most reasonable approach to take.”

In the Capital City, sheriff’s deputies have been trying to contend with cellphones thrown over the fence at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. CellSense, a portable scanner that can be used in many parts of the lockup, has been helping to catch cellphones on inmates, Warden Dennis Grimes said. “When they’re moving back and forth from court, we actually put it out there and let them walk by it,” Grimes said. “If they walk by it and it goes off, then we immediately shake them down.”

Cain said authorities at Winn Correctional Center, a state prison outside Winnfield, have had such a persistent problem with people throwing contraband cellphones over the fence in bags that perimeter lights have been directed toward the surrounding woods. “They have to go patrol the yard before they can let the inmates out because there’s so many being thrown over the fence,” he said.

In interviews, wardens described cellphones as an inevitable part of life behind bars, fueled largely by the innovativeness of inmates who have all day to plot their next scheme. As with shanks and other contraband, authorities can only hope to catch them as quickly as possible and remove them from the prison population.

“As with any means of detection,” Laborde said, “offenders are always looking for ways to get around it — and that certainly will always be the case.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.