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Cells In Cells: California Prison Unleashes Hounds Over Contraband Phones

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a cute human-interest story about Drako the dog. He's a K-9 for a prison in Vacaville, Calif. who reached a strange milestone: He sniffed out his 1,000th contraband cell phone in just four and a half years. The article enthuses that this one prison hasn't just doubled-down on Drako. They've added 30 dogs now.

Certainly, there is a degree to which cell phones are being used to commit crimes from within prisons around the country. Nevertheless, as an anonymous, formerly incarcerated person told the Broward/Palm Beach New Times, "The vast majority [of cell phones] are used by inmates desperate to stay in touch with, and hold on to, their wives and children…if my wife, child, or a close friend were ill, I would blow the month's phone budget."

Money transfers and phone services - both vital in prisons - are controlled by private corporations that can charge outrageously high fees. JPay, a Miami-based corporation that provides money transfers in 33 states (along with other services, like email, in others), can charge as much as $6.90 for a single $25 transfer in Tennessee. JPay's blog emphasizes the danger of cell phones in prisons, and claims that JPay's services can mitigate those dangers. In 2009, Terry L. Bittner wrote a blog post for Corrections One, a website for corrections officers, about the growing danger of cell phones in prisons. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Bittner was at the same time the Director of Security Products for a corporation which made Cell Hound, a product sold to prisons to locate contraband cell phones.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission capped interstate phone call fees at 25 cents/minute, a charge that is still considerably higher than a person outside of the prison system would have to pay. Local calls, however, remain extremely costly. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to lower the cost of in-state regional calls in county jails, reducing local call prices by 38%. Though efforts like these, which in no small part due to advocacy by the ACLU, are improvements, they are not enough.

As long as private corporations are contracted for services like money transfer and cell phone usage, incarcerated people and their families will continue to suffer the consequences. The incentive for local municipalities to keep such an unjust partnership intact actually lies in the payments they are guaranteed from these corporations, as the New York Times found in a review of phone contracts: "In Baldwin County, Ala., … the sheriff's department collects 84 percent of the gross revenue from calls at the county jail. A Texas company has guaranteed the county at least $55 a month per inmate."

The California State Sheriff's Association argues that lowering fees for calls and money transfers will "negatively impact inmates," claiming that the funds collected from such services go towards inmate amenities. However, privatization of prison services does not have a history of benefiting either people in prison or local communities. In fact, the primary beneficiary from increased privatization may not even be human: Vacaville's prison added thirty new phone-sniffing dogs to its canine unit in the last year.

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