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Keeping cellphones out of cellblocks a challenge for prisons

Smugglers have been known to use slingshots and even carrier pigeons to get cellphones behind bars. In the U.S., officials want to try rendering them useless by jamming the signals.

July 23, 2009|David Colker

Cellphones in prisons have become a big problem, with inmates devising ever more exotic ways of smuggling them in.

So federal prison officials have a new plan: If you can't beat 'em, jam 'em.

The proposed Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 would allow prisons to install wireless jamming systems that would make cellphones useless behind bars.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) added her support to the bill this week, saying in a statement, "We know that inmates use these phones to conduct criminal business on the outside, including directing gang hits, controlling drug trafficking operations and even conducting credit card fraud."

While House and Senate versions of the bill languish in committee, smugglers are finding new ways to get the phones into prisons, including, reportedly, using slingshots to propel them over the walls.

But when it comes to originality, no one beats the smugglers of Brazil.

In May, police near Presidente Venceslau penitentiary found a remote-controlled model helicopter with a basket attached that held nine cellphones. A man confessed he was to be paid several thousand dollars to fly the helicopter into the prison yard.

This month prison guards near the city of Sorocaba intercepted an exhausted carrier pigeon that was wearing a tiny homemade backpack.

Inside was a cellphone and the name of the inmate it was supposed to go to.

The cloth backpack was an innovation, but a prison official said it was not the first time a bird was used as a smuggler's accomplice.

"Guards now keep a sharp eye on pigeons," the official said.

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david.colker@latimes.com

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