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Cell phones behind bars: Can you hear me now?
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter, Cell phones behind bars: Can you hear me now?
Published: 06/12/2006

In Texas, an inmate received an additional 40 years to his sentence after authorities caught him using a contraband cell phone. In Tennessee, an inmate organized his escape with a cell phone, but officers got involved. Unfortunately, an officer was shot to death during the incident.

“In corrections, cell phones are a prevalent, national problem,” says Alex Fox, Director of Security Technologies for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

Across the country, smuggled cell phones is quickly becoming one of the major challenges in corrections by enabling offenders to plot escapes, orchestrate drug deals, and harass victims. In fact, this contraband has become so popular that officials estimate cell phones can be worth as much as $3,000 to $5,000 behind bars; an amount that could make some officers susceptible to bribes

As incidents rise, officials are searching for the best strategies to manage and eliminate this problem.

“Cell phones are everywhere and there are only a few technologies available to detect them. The technology available now is very, very expensive, so it's a roadblock for corrections. A lot of development has to take place regarding the design and development of an actual technology that will work in a prison setting,” Fox explains.

In other countries, prison officials have dealt with the problem by “jamming” cell signals, rendering phones useless. But in the U.S., legal red-tape limits the number of options available.

“The Telecommunications Act is pretty clear that you cannot intentionally interfere with communication signals,” says John Schafer, Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Right now, the technologies that are emerging allow you to detect cell phones. There's a lot going on to test and evaluate that technology, but that's the current state of affairs.”

Officials are on the market for a legal, cost-effective, and prison-safe detection system that can adapt to their facility's design and structure.

“The most important roadblock with cell phone detection is physical,” Fox explains. “It's an issue because of the construction of each facility, and the use of concrete and metal.”

Companies, like Arizona's Cellbusters are making cell phone detection products but their features are limited. The Cellbusters system causes cell phones to light up and sends a message to users telling the to shut off their phone. But this may not help officials catch offenders making calls.

BINJ Labs thinks it may have the answer though. After the Federal Bureau of Prisons asked the company to come up with a cell phone detection solution, BINJ began work on its CellScan product.

“One of the biggest problems we faced was the difference between the types of cell phones,” says Barry Nadler, BINJ Labs VP of System Development. “You're dealing with Cingular, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint. We had to be sure we could detect and identify every type of signal.”

CellScan is a network of wireless sensors housed in corrections-safe black boxes and are hung throughout facilities. Each censor detects cell phone signals and alerts authorities if a phone is in use. Censors are mounted between cell walls to get the best reading, however, the system had to adapt to a facility's actual structure.

“It was important to make this system wireless. In most cases, to install any kind of system in corrections, you'd have to drill through walls that are 18-inches thick and reinforced with concrete. That's a very expensive process when you're dealing with hundreds of walls,” Nadler explains.

Currently, a beta version of CellScan is installed at Massachusetts' Norfolk County Sheriff's Office and Nadler says no major system bugs have appeared. BINJ plans to officially release CellScan this summer.


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