By Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine
Sheltering the glow from the cellphone with his body in the late hours of the night, he’s amazed by what he sees: five bars! Five, instead of the weak signal he usually sees inside his prison cell. But tonight, the calls won’t reach the drug dealer outside the prison or his girlfriend in another state, in spite of those five bars. That strong signal comes not from a commercial carrier, but from the managed access system the facility implemented that day.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services implemented a managed access project in the Metropolitan Transition Center in downtown Baltimore in April 2013, and according to Correctional Operations Information Technology Manager Jay Miller, immediately began to notice a drop in the number of contraband cellphones that its security sweeps located.
“When we turned it on, the number of contraband cellphones located dropped immediately, and it has continued to drop,” Miller says. “The number of searches remained consistent, it wasn’t like we were searching less. And at the same time, the number of calls being made through the inmate phone system increased. We monitor a lot of statistics and they all show it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Managed access systems are scaled-down versions of all cellular carrier technologies in the area. Cellular power is transmitted within the perimeter of the facility, forcing cellphones to sync with the system. It permits only calls from authorized cellphones and all 911 calls to go through. It works by using the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI), cellular phone number, mobile device hardware ID and electronic serial number (ESN).
According to Miller, fluctuating cellular power at any given tower presents one of the biggest challenges that a managed access provider faces: cellular providers frequently make minor adjustments in power and are under no obligation to inform managed access vendors.
“There are a number of towers in downtown Baltimore, and our managed access vendor has to walk a fine line to balance the levels,” Miller says. “There may be an area in the yard where signals get through at times, but for an inmate to take a phone out of a cell and try to find a weak spot, it’s not worth the risk of being caught. The safest place for an inmate to use a phone has been in the cell, after count, when no one is going to be around for a while, and we’re sure there’s no access now in the housing units. We do test it by sending officers out once a month to try to make calls from various areas.”
Maryland correctional officials researched a number of different technologies before selecting a managed access vendor.
“We decided that making the phones completely inoperable was the best approach,” Miller says. “Using a passive technology would take a lot of staff resources, because you have to immediately go out and find them as soon as you detect them. Theoretically, with managed access, you stop them immediately and you can go find them later, but we’ve found that the 2 inmates are getting rid of them on their own. The inmates are deciding it’s not worth keeping them just to take pictures.”
Miller discussed the project at the National Institute of Justice August 2013 Technology Institute for Corrections. Maryland has enough confidence in the project at the Metropolitan Transition Center that when a number of problems surfaced at the nearby Baltimore City Detention Center, the department did an emergency procurement to start managed access at that facility. Miller says that the bulk of contraband cellphones found in the state come from those two facilities, and that in the rural western and eastern areas of the state, it’s a far different story.
“You really have to look at the return on your investment to decide if it’s worth it. If you have a rural facility where you find three cellphones a year and cell service may be spotty anyway, it’s probably not worth the cost.”
For more information on Maryland’s use of managed access, contact Jay Miller at (443) 250-4695 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is one of a series of articles to appear in TechBeat focusing on information presented at the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ) August 2013 Technology Institute for Corrections, which brought together administrative-level corrections professionals to learn about contraband cellphone interdiction. For information on the Institutes, contact Jack Harne, NIJ corrections technology program manager, at email@example.com.