Gov. Martin O'Malley described the new cellphone screening system in the Baltimore City Detention Center as the state's latest step in a never-ending process: keeping pace with technology inmates use to continue criminal activities behind bars.
Violent gangs tend to innovate faster than law enforcement, O'Malley said at a news conference Friday.
"These are pretty deadly instruments for gangs to use,'' O'Malley said, noting that inmates have used cellphones to intimidate witnesses and order hits on rival gang members.
He predicted that in 10 years, prisons across the country will have screening systems similar to Baltimore's. Greg Hershberger, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, said he plans to have them installed in all of Maryland's prisons, starting with other Baltimore facilities.
The new system prevents inmates from calling anyone except 911 on unauthorized cellphones. It allows calls from registered, authorized cellphones.
During Friday's news conference, in a room at the Baltimore jail, a supervisor demonstrated the new system by trying to make a call. A recording came through the speakers: "The cellular device you are using has been identified as contraband and is illegal to possess under Maryland statute 9-417.'' It said the caller's conversation could be recorded and used as evidence.
However, Casey Campbell, the jail's assistant administrator, said the system actually halts every call from an unauthorized phone.
Tecore Networks, a Hanover company, invented and installed the system. The federal government prohibits most agencies from ``jamming'' all cellphone service in a certain area, so Tecore designed technology that could prevent certain calls without cutting off all service.
The system also pinpoints the location of any cellphone used in the jail, Campbell said. But this hasn't led to many additional phone confiscations since the system went online; instead of calling from their cells, inmates often wait until they're in other parts of the building, like a medical office or recreation area, Campbell said.
He said inmates are always innovating new ways to subvert security measures. Keeping up with them is a ``great challenge,'' and on one level he admires their creativity.
"That's what the people that started Microsoft had -- that creative thinking,'' Campbell said. "They're much more challenging, they're much more demanding than when I started as an officer'' in 1984.
At one point during installation, the system halted cellphone use 50 or 100 feet outside the building, Campbell said. Tecore adjusted it to a "bubble'' affecting only the jail.
O'Malley said the system cost about $5.4 million.
Pete France, a regional director for the corrections department, said the state has also bought equipment to retrieve text messages, photos, contact information and other data from confiscated cellphones. Sometimes this can help in criminal investigations.
Rick Binetti, spokesman for the corrections department, said the state began cracking down on cellphone policies when O'Malley took office in 2007. That first fiscal year, it seized 741 cellphones. In fiscal year 2009, the number reached 1,658. O'Malley said that last year, officers only seized 400 despite a higher volume of searches.