As contraband phones flood Baltimore jail, blocking technology comes online

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.