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California has a new plan to stop contraband cell phones in prisons

The California Department of Corrections is launching an ambitious new program to stop the inflow of contraband cell phones into the state’s prison system — and the nation’s largest prison phone company is paying for it.

The new plan will entail the installation of more than 1,000 sophisticated devices in all 35 state prisons and three juvenile facilities, including hidden surveillance cameras, scanners to detect magnetic signals, metal detectors, X-ray machines and decryption devices, according to the Associated Press.


Virginia-based Global Tel-Link will fund the program, at $17 million a year. Global Tel-Link provides prison phone calling services, often on exclusive contracts, and charges inmates and their families by the minute for voice and video calls.

The company, and its main competitor Texas-based Securus Technologies, are frequent targets of critics who say they charge unreasonable rates for inmates to stay in touch with their families. In the past, some some inmates were charged as much as $14 a minute.

The California state prison system has been in a losing battle to keep contraband cell phones out of facilities. Prison officials confiscated around 8,000 devices between January and August of 2016, about the same amount confiscated in all of 2015, AP reported. And while illicit cell phones can pose a danger to both prison guards and the general public, limiting them is great business for companies like Global Tel-Link, since inmates then are forced to rely on the prison phone system.

Global Tel-Link’s product manager Mitch Volkart told AP that the new system is unlikely to disincentivize inmates who use cellphones for the purpose of conducting illegal activity. “You can’t try to address the demand because the demand is always going to be there,” Volkhart said. The company has similar programs in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Oklahoma.

The use of cellphones in prisons received public attention in September when inmates in correctional facilities across the country participated in labor strikes. Inmates coordinated the strikes using a network of contraband cell phones, and through family members or organizers on the outside.

The new strategy to tackle cell phone use replaces an older system. Last year, California Corrections officials told AP that they would not expand a “inmate call capture program” program using devices which intercepted cellphone signals, rendering the phones unusable. Those devices, installed at 18 prisons in California, interrupted on average more than 350,000 calls and text messages per week in the last year, but advances in cell phone technology had been rendering these devices less effective.