SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California prison officials seized nearly 11,000 cell phones last year, some used to arrange extortions and assaults, others used by the likes of cult killer Charles Manson to connect with the outside world after more than four decades behind bars.
Manson became an unlikely face of the prison cell phone problem after he was caught calling and texting people in California, Florida, New Jersey and British Columbia. He had missed calls from Arkansas, Indiana and Massachusetts on the phone that guards discovered in March 2009, and he was caught with a second phone last month.
Officials have become so outraged at the notion of violent inmates like Manson possessing cell phones that they are trying new ways to strike back. Corrections officials tell The Associated Press that they are preparing to test a system that would capture every cell phone signal from a prison and block unauthorized calls, as California and other states search for technology to stop what has become a growing problem inside prison walls.
California legislators are also considering three proposed changes to state law that would step up enforcement against cell phone violators in prison.
"If the phones didn't work from behind bars, that would solve a lot of the problems. A lot of them wouldn't want the phones anymore," said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
Prison officials hope the efforts will thwart inmates like Manson, 40 years after he was convicted of killings including the infamous murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles in 1969.
He obtained two cell phones despite being housed in California's only Protective Housing Unit, reserved for the most notorious inmates. They have their own exercise yard at Corcoran State Prison, and their meals are cooked by prison employees — instead of other inmates — for fear of poisoning.
Yet the 76-year-old Manson has been calling and texting people all over North America.
"The states and the cities happen to coincide with the locations and cities where I know the old core (Manson) Family members are currently residing," said Sharon Tate's sister, Debra Tate, who lives in the Los Angeles area and is the last surviving member of her immediate family. "These people are still able to influence others, I don't care how old they get."
Officials will not release the names of the people Manson was communicating with on the phone seized in 2009. They also won't say where Manson was calling with his second phone as they struggle with the huge volume of cell phone investigations.
Authorities believe Manson received the first phone from a visitor, a typical method of contraband delivery. Guards encounter more creative methods as well, including phones that are punted over prison walls inside soccer balls. Guards themselves have been accused of smuggling many of the phones. Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira is concerned Manson may be reaching old Family members and new followers who regularly send him fan mail.
"He's such a strange individual, it's really almost impossible to say what he would tell people or what he would want to communicate," said Sequeira, who represents prosecutors whenever Manson Family members come up for parole hearings. "Maybe he thinks he can break out and hide, I don't know."
California previously has concentrated on finding the contraband phones. But by the time the phones are discovered, the damage is often done.
So the nation's largest state prison system decided to follow the lead of Mississippi, which is installing a system known as "managed access" after a successful six-month test.
The Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry support the system as an alternative to jamming, which can interfere with legal GPS, radio and cell phone communications. Maryland, South Carolina and Texas also are evaluating the technology, according to the FCC.
"It renders the cell phone to be a paperweight in the prisoner's hand," said Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. "As the prisoners realized these cell phones would be ineffective, they stopped even trying."
California also will test a device to detect cell phones passing by, letting guards know which prisoners to search for phones so small they can now be concealed in wristwatches.
Installing the managed access equipment would cost about $1 million per prison, Thornton said. The state has 33 adult prisons, so the expense could be considerable as California struggles with a nearly $27 billion budget shortfall through June 2012.
Amit Malhotra, vice president of marketing for Tecore Inc., the Maryland-based company installing Mississippi's system, said that state pays for the technology through the fees inmates pay to make telephone calls using land lines, with no cost to taxpayers and no increase in inmates' phone fees.
Alternatives like installing enough metal detectors to scan every prison employee would also cost millions of dollars, Thornton said. Visitors already are screened.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, said it makes no sense to require screening at airports, sports stadiums, many government buildings and even many high schools, yet not for prison employees. He has introduced two bills that add penalties for inmates, employees or visitors smuggling cell phones. Currently, possessing a cell phone violates prison rules, but is not illegal in California.
A third bill, by Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, would require the department to conduct random searches of employees and contractors who enter prisons.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association does not oppose either random or daily employee searches. But that would do nothing to block the sacks of phones that guards have found tossed over prison walls, said spokesman JeVaughn Baker.
And Terry Bittner, director of security products for New York-based ITT Corp., cautioned that even if calls are blocked, inmates can smuggle tiny smart-phone data cards full of messages, photos and video unless officials seize the phones themselves.
Baker estimated it could cost $20 million annually to screen every employee, let alone the cost of the equipment or the overtime if employees get backed up during shift changes. Legislative analysts last year said even random searches could cost $1.3 million annually, including $1 million in overtime for delaying employees getting to and from their posts.
"We don't oppose the idea," Baker said. "Can the state afford to do it?"
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