Prison officials crack down on cell phones

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Local,Carolyn Peirce

State officials are ramping up efforts to seize contraband cell phones from inmates to prevent crimes outside prison walls.

"Cell phones are perhaps the worst type of contraband, because in most cases, they provide an easy, continuing connection back to the inmate?s life on the street ? the type of lifestyle that led them to being incarcerated with us," said Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard.

"If cell phones are used to make drug deals in prisons, then that adds to the risk our security faces," he added.

"If cell phones are used to make gang violence connections [outside prison], that heightens the risk to the public."

In fiscal 2008, the Division of Correction confiscated 849 cell phones from about 20 state institutions, Maynard said.

In the Baltimore area, cell phone finds increased 76 percent during the first four months of 2008 compared with the same time frame in 2007.

In one case, Patrick Byers, 22, while on trial on murder charges, sent a text message from the Baltimore City Detention Center to order the death of a murder witness, Carl Lackl Jr., who was killed July 2, 2007, according to Baltimore County police.

Interdiction efforts began when intelligence teams studied how cell phones made it into the prisons, where they sell for about $350, Correction Division Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer said.

Visitors and correctional officers can smuggle them inside or toss them over the barbed wire fences, he said.

"People can [hide] them on their bodies or even in their bodies," Stouffer added.

Stouffer turned to Canine Unit commander Maj. Peter Anderson, who specially trained a litter of puppies to detect cell phones.

There are only a handful of cell phone detection dogs in the world that can differentiate between cell phones and other electronics, Anderson said.

The dogs search prison cells, sniffing inside shoes and books, and alert their handler of a phone by sitting down.

Inmates, prison staff members and correctional officers who are caught with contraband can face criminal charges, said Rick Binetti, a Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman.

Inmates can face up to an additional year in prison, he said, and staff members can lose their job.

Prison officials said they hoped in the future to increase the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.

cpeirce@baltimoreexaminer.com

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