Contraband cellphones in California prisons have a dwindling shelf life.

By Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

On July 20, a search warrant and affidavit signed by Kern County Superior Court Judge David Wolf directed phone carriers to suspend and discontinue service to 97 cellular subscribers operating those devices illegally inside Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP).

The termination of service, carefully directed at phone numbers identified and investigated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Office of Correctional Safety (OCS), is a monumental step in line with a national effort to rid correctional institutions of a hazardous epidemic.

After the warrants were delivered to complying phone carriers, CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan spoke of the department’s collaborative work to strengthen public safety.

“It’s really a departmental effort between OCS, Enterprise Information Services, the Office of Legal Affairs and the Division of Adult Institutions,” Kernan said. “I saw people pour their heart and soul out to find a solution, so it’s really rewarding to know that we have embarked on a process that will evolve, but is in its first step.”

Support from the Administration also played an important role.

“In the end, Governor Jerry Brown was a driving force to bring the phone carriers to the table,” Kernan said. “The Governor is completely invested in criminal justice policy in this state and has great interest about what we can do to improve the system.”

Last year, CDCR discovered 13,195 cellphones in 35 adult institutions, nearly a 12 percent increase from 2016 (11,795 discoveries) and a 40 percent increase from 2015 (9,383 discoveries).

The rampant and illegal use of these phones is directly contrary to the department’s rehabilitative efforts. Cellphones in state prisons can be used to facilitate or commit crimes, including illicit gang activity and the commission of violence in other prisons, or in the community.

CDCR has initiated several strategies to curb introduction and use of contraband cellphones, including the Managed Access System (MAS) or jamming/interruption technology, cellphone-sniffing K-9s and use of parcel and body scanners, to name a few.

The breakthrough that made last week’s order possible was crafted out of data collected via an earlier search warrant served on the MAS at KVSP, as well as cellphone carriers. Using unique identifiers, OCS investigators targeted suspected cellphone numbers that were detected engaging in criminal activity inside KVSP.

Those phone numbers and their accompanying international mobile subscriber identifier (IMSI) and international mobile equipment identifier (IMEI) were included in the affidavit. The same information will be placed on a “stolen phone database” by the carriers, effectively preventing users from switching carriers to avoid suspension.

This effort is a landmark achievement for cellphone interdiction nationwide.

Until now, a correctional agency has never made significant use of cellphone data collected at a prison to turn the devices on their own users on a large scale.

Kernan said the identifying characteristics used to target and eliminate contraband cellphone use are going to have a similar impact on the individuals responsible for their introduction into facilities.

He wasn’t just speaking about drones and drops.

“I believe that we have a problem with staff bringing phones into our prisons, and it will not be tolerated” Kernan explained. “Our staff work very hard, and face many challenges in prisons every single day. To have a few tarnish the reputation of others is unacceptable, and we will be looking at more diligently identifying and referring them for prosecution.”

“Staff bringing in drugs and phones are placing their colleagues in grave jeopardy for profit,” Kernan added. “If you are bringing in contraband, understand that we are redoubling our efforts to find and prosecute you.

“I’m asking all staff to take a greater role in identifying staff who would place their greed ahead of our profession. There is no room for you in our proud organization.”

Kernan credited the cellphone carriers for their compliance. It’s a pivotal step that his national peers in the Association of State Correctional Administrators are also working toward.

“One of the things we came up with at the national stage was for us to use the judicial system to try and find an answer ― to get the phone carriers to cooperate and actually get a court order that would have the carriers turn these phones into bricks,” Kernan said.

The department will need to work diligently to see the method spread to all 35 adult institutions. KVSP was selected because it’s one of 18 CDCR institutions with a MAS system in place.

Kernan will retire as Secretary in late August. He said since prison cellphone use is such a critical public safety issue, CDCR could expand the practice of court-ordered service disruption at every state prison.

“I think the leaders who are going to remain here have a process that can get better and gain additional resources,” Kernan said. “Every effort the department has made, from the K-9s, scanners and detection technology, etc., has led to this moment. We would not be where we are today without what we learned in all of our other efforts.”