By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Prison inmates are letting their fingers do the walking by orchestrating crimes with contraband cell phones, as states scramble for ways to fight back despite budget woes that limit their options.
Until now, authorities had focused on nabbing smuggled cell phones, but in recent months Mississippi, Texas and California have experimented with disrupting inmates' wireless calls.
The states are steering clear of violating Federal Communications Commission rules which ban jamming cell signals. But some officials complain alternative technology costs millions more, and that they cannot afford it.
Officials say inmates with smuggled cell phones have coordinated drug deals and ordered hits on prison guards and witnesses. As a result, Mississippi tacks on another three to 15 years to sentences of inmates caught using the cells.
But in California, a budget crisis compounded by overcrowded prisons has hampered efforts to punish inmates with smuggled cells -- even mass murderer Charles Manson.
The 1960s leader of the Manson Family cult was caught in January for the second time with a phone, but as punishment he only lost 30 days of good behavior credit. That is because California does not criminalize contraband cells.
"When Charles Manson is caught with a cell phone, you know the problem is out of control," said state Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee approved Padilla's bill to make it a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to six months in jail to smuggle a cell to an inmate.
It would also stiffen penalties for inmates, but that has been the obstacle that blocked past versions of the bill, Padilla said. Lawmakers oppose anything that leads to inmates serving more time, because of a bloated prison population.
California has 162,000 inmates, which is over-capacity by some 70,000 bodies, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The most populous U.S. state also has a budget crisis, and on Thursday Governor Jerry Brown signed cuts and other measures to slice about $11 billion from a $27 billion deficit.
Padilla said despite the potential cost of holding inmates longer or implementing technology to stop their wireless calls, the state must deal with the problem.
"I think this rises above the level of common sense, and we need to make an exception," Padilla said. His bill should make it to Brown's desk sometime this year, he added.
Last year, a Mississippi prison became the first in the nation to permanently install technology that blocks inmates' calls on contraband cells, said Ken North, director of the state's corrections investigations division.
At the rural institution known as Parchman Farm, a company called Tecore Networks built a cell tower that only transmits calls from pre-approved cell phone numbers, leaving contraband ones inoperable.
Tecore is installing the system at two other Mississippi prisons, and it expects the cost for all three facilities to be about $3 million, North said.
But Mississippi got the technology at no cost to taxpayers because Global Tel*Link, the company that manages inmates' legal landline calls, folded it into their service, he said.
So far, the "managed access" technology at Parchman has stopped over 1 million cell phone transmissions. That's a lot of calls for 3,200 inmates, and it is because many with contraband cells still dial several times a day. Some try to call from the floor, thinking it will help.
BEAT THE SYSTEM
"They're inmates, they've got 24 hours a day to try to think of ways to beat the system," North said.
Because the technology does not jam all phone calls, only the unauthorized ones, it avoids running afoul of the FCC and federal law that bans jamming signals.
Texas this month began experimenting with managed access technology at one of its prison units, where an inmate recently escaped and hooked up with a woman he met in an online chat room using a contraband phone.
But John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said installing a managed access system costs $2.5 million, compared to $500,000 to simply jam all calls.
"You're talking a fifth of the cost, and so for a place like Texas where you have 114 facilities, that's an awful lot of money for the taxpayer," he said.
Padilla said California is also experimenting with stopping contraband signals, and is working with the FCC.
The FCC contends jamming technology can block cell signals of residents near a prison.
"We understand the concerns of state and local corrections officials and we're working with them as well as industry to identify solutions," said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.
"Our biggest concern is it could interfere with 911 or emergency communications as well as commercial service."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)