A private company that owns the pay phones in California's prisons will pay millions of dollars to install technology that prevents inmates from using smuggled cell phones to make their calls instead.
The deal with Global Tel Link addresses the growing problem of cell phones within the nation's largest prison system, where the technology has been used by inmates to run criminal enterprises, intimidate witnesses and organize attacks on guards.
The move also comes at no cost to taxpayers because the private firm expects to see demand for its pay phones soar, Dana Simas, a spokeswoman from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Tuesday.
"There are pay phones available on the yards, but if you were to go to them now, there's no one using them," she said. "They're empty and a couple of years ago there were lines hours long."
Beverly Schumock, an administration manager at Global Tel Link, referred questions to a company e-mail address for media inquiries. No one replied to an e-mail sent Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Global Tel expects to have the blocking technology running at the California State Prison in Solano by the end of the year and at all prisons within three years.
The state won't share in the profits Global Tel makes from the collect calls, but the company will pay an estimated $1 million for implementation and installation at each of the state's 33 prisons.
Global Tel will also pay an $800,000 annual fee to the California Technology Agency for the contract, and the agency will make sure the Mobile, Ala.-based firm doesn't hike calling rates, according to the contract.
The deal will mean slightly lower rates for collect calls than prisoners currently pay. A 15-minute local call will cost $1.50, while a 15-minute in-state, long-distance call will cost about $2, a decrease of a penny a minute. A 15-minute interstate call will cost $6.60, a decrease of nearly 22 cents a minute.
Last year, California prison guards confiscated nearly 11,000 contraband phones, a sharp increase from 2007 when only 1,400 were found. Even Charles Manson, arguably the state's most notorious inmate, has twice been caught with contraband phones.
Prison officials in some instances have deployed cell phone-sniffing dogs to search for the devices.
New legislation last year made it a misdemeanor to smuggle a cell phone into a prison, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.
"This groundbreaking and momentous technology will enable (the prison system) to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates," Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said in a statement.
Under the new plan, each prison will get its own cell tower that can be controlled by prison officials. Approved phones will be able to send and receive signals, but contraband phones will be useless under the company's cellular umbrella. The deal marks the first time the technology will be used for a state's entire prison system.
Last year, during an 11-day test at two California institutions, the new technology detected 2,593 different wireless devices and blocked more than 25,000 attempts to make calls, send texts and e-mails, and log onto the Internet with a smart phone, according to prison officials.
Prison watchdog groups, however, are critical of the deal between the state and Global Tel Link, saying it gives the private company a monopoly on the collect calls inmates rely on to stay in touch with family. Inmate families are concerned that with cell phone-blocking technology, Global Tel will raise rates.
"If your mother was in prison, would you refuse a collect call? Would you refuse to talk to her? They know that those relationships are going to exist between human beings and they are going to exploit that and the state is willingly allowing the exploitation," said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
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