Contraband cell phones in prisons are on the rise and pose a major threat to the safety and security, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.
But the report finds that the Bureau of Prisons hasn’t coordinated with state prison officials about the best detection and prevention methods and hasn’t developed a system to adequately measure various technologies for keeping cell phones out of federal facilities.
BOP officials confiscated 8,656 cell phones at high, medium, low security institutions and prison camps in 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to the report.
Justice Department officials deemed information about the methods by which cell phones were smuggled into prisons “law enforcement sensitive” and had that information omitted from the report.
The report does say that cell phones “are often found on the grounds of an institution or in ‘common areas’ such as bathrooms or television rooms rather than in the possession of an inmate directly.” Cell phones are also “frequently passed around and used by several different inmates, making it difficult to link the ownership of a cell phone to a particular inmate,” according to the report.
Besides its search procedures, BOP had implemented two large-scale sensor-based Radio Frequency (RF) cell phone detection systems in two institutions, which the report says is “a technology BOP officials described as being the only effective solution at this time.” The system can detect the presence of cell phones and shows their approximate location on a monitored computer screen.
BOP officials, however, did not subject the RF sensor system to any final assessment or evaluate whether adopting the RF system on a wider scale would be feasible and effective.
Furthermore, the report says that BOP may not be exploring all of its options. The bureau “implemented — and discarded — some technologies without fully evaluating them and documenting results,” according to the report.
BOP did conclude that a Ground Observation Reconnaissance Transmitter (GORT), designed to detect movement of contraband over security fences, did “successfully reduced smuggling of contraband including cell phones at the test location.”
GAO’s report examines the notion that prisoners are resorting to using cell phones because the cost of making phone calls through the official system is too high. BOP charges six cents per minute for local calls and $0.23 per minute for long-distance calls.
But over the past 12 to 18 months, the BOP service “has generated significantly less revenue as inmates purchased more local minutes and fewer long distance minutes,” according to the report.
Call it the Google Voice effect:
BOP officials attribute this shift from long distance to local minute calls to the emergence of technology that allows inmates’ friends and family who do not live within the inmates’ local calling area to acquire telephone numbers local to the inmates’ prison locations. As a result, long distance calls that previously cost inmates $0.23 per minute can now be made for the local rate of $0.06 per minute — a savings of more than 70 percent on a 15-minute call.