Report Raises Significant Concerns about State
Corrections Investment in Technology to Block Contraband Cell Phone Use at Prisons
Managed Access Systems (MAS) would function as a system to detect and
preclude the operation of cell phones not authorized in the MAS approved database. Image:
SACRAMENTO, Calif. May 8, 2012 - The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) released
a report today advising the State of California to use security screening systems, similar to those
in airports, in state prisons before investing millions in untested technology intended to block
calls by inmates from contraband cell phones.
CCST encourages the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to review and
consider recommendations provided in its report. CCST urges the CDCR to consider a robust pilot
project before implementing a managed access system (MAS), or any other technology across the CDCR
facilities. Its report also provides recommendations and suggestions to insure the operational goals
of MAS, or other technologies that CDCR might consider, are achieved.
California State Senators Elaine Alquist, Loni Hancock, Christine Kehoe and Alex Padilla asked
CCST to analyze the use of contraband cell phones in state prisons, and the viability of the
technology approach referred to as MAS in blocking signals from phones smuggled into prisons.
MAS is currently used to block inmate calls in only one U.S. prison, a remote prison in
Mississippi, which is having difficulty implementing and managing MAS to the level of performance
desired. In theory, MAS will use a data base of authorized cell numbers as a filter to intercept
calls from unauthorized numbers, then block those unauthorized calls from reaching cellular
Inmate use of mobile phones is a growing problem throughout the country. While many inmates may
use them to talk with family members and play games, they can also use them to order hits,
intimidate witnesses and coordinate gang activities. In 2011, the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that approximately 15,000 contraband cell phones were
confiscated at California state prisons, but the number remaining could be much higher.
CCST's report uncovers significant problems with MAS, which is among a number of options for
preventing inmate cell phone use. For example, MAS could interfere with correctional and public
safety cell phone use. If a prison is in a populated area, MAS could also prevent members of a
surrounding community from making emergency cell phone calls to 911 because their numbers would not
be on the MAS database.
The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) is a nonpartisan, impartial, nonprofit
created in 1988 by a unanimous vote of the California Legislature. It is designed to offer expert
advice to the state government and to recommend solutions on science and technology-related policy
issues. Its report was independently peer-reviewed by national experts including several from
laboratories operated by the U.S. Federal government.
CCST notes the following issues, not only with MAS, but also with CDCR security procedures:
- MAS technology aside, screening of staff and visitors at California prisons was found to be
significantly less rigorous and consistent than screening at airports; CCST urges this issue be
addressed prior to investment in MAS or other call blocking technologies.
- If MAS is deployed, determining an effective process to ensure efficacy of MAS to block
contraband cell phones is important before implementing the blocking technology throughout the
prison system. Oversight by a third party to verify the veracity of deployed MAS technology would be
- Even if MAS can be configured to be relatively successful when launched, continuing advances in
cell phone technology could soon render MAS ineffective in blocking rapidly evolving cell phone
technologies without concurrent upgrades of the MAS system. As currently contracted by CDCR, MAS
cannot capture Wi-Fi, Mi-Fi, Skype or satellite transmissions. Also, text message capture capability
would need further study to determine its efficacy.
CCST acknowledges that CDCR tried to test MAS technology, but describes the test as "extremely
limited in scope and scale, essentially a proof of concept trail rather than a full-fledged pilot
"A more direct and cost efficient way to address the problem would be to stop or minimize cell
phone entry into prisons with more consistent and complete screening of all personnel moving in and
out of the prison confinement areas." said Charles Harper, CCST Board Member and Chair of the
Project Team that developed the report.
CONTACT: Will Holbert
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