Alabama DOC Aims to Silence Illicit Cell Phones

ELMORE COUNTY, Ala. — Alabama’s Draper, Elmore and Staton correctional facilities, all located in Elmore County, may soon receive managed-access systems aimed at blocking signals to contraband cell phones. The systems would render illicit cell phones useless within prison walls and are projected to cost the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) an estimated $2 million. An already proposed expansion of the program to four additional prisons — Fountain, Bibb, St. Clair and Donaldson — would bump that figure to $4 million.

Instead of simply using cell phone detection technology, the newly appointed DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn hopes the managed-access system will interrupt all illicit cell phone activity. It differs from jamming by allowing all calls to, from recognized and approved devices and blocking all communications (including texts and Internet activities) from unrecognized devices.

Illegal cell phones are hot commodities in correctional facilities. The devices are generally thrown over fences or smuggled in by friends and family members. However, correctional officers who choose to participate in trafficking the devices can earn hundreds of dollars. The devices are then often used to incite violence, plan additional crimes and extort money from the family members of targeted inmates. However, they have also been used to plan inmate protests and have allowed inmates to speak with members of the media.

Dunn requested the $4 million necessary to implement the program from the state legislature earlier this month. He asked for roughly $494 million total for 2016, an increase of $36 million over the current year. This budget increase would be dedicated to financing additional security staff, enhancing employee benefits and improving community corrections. In his request, Dunn also cautioned against any budget cuts that could force the DOC to close facilities and exacerbate overcrowding — moves that could put the state at greater risk for federal action.

While Alabama prisons do not keep records of the contraband cell phones collected, Steve Brown, chief of staff for the DOC, told earlier this month that the agency recently donated 1,400 confiscated devices to a state domestic violence program. Those cell phones had been collected in less than one year, according to Brown.

Managed access systems are beginning to catch fire, and have already been installed in correctional facilities in Maryland. Mississippi became the first state in the nation to adopt the technology in 2010.

In March, a cell phone image taken by inmates depicting violence and threats against a fellow inmate in the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., made headlines, showing the need for wider use of cell phone detection and blocking technology. Although Georgia correctional officials declined to comment on specifics, they did confirm the incident is under investigation.