Cells Phones as Weapons? The Urgent Public Saftey Issue of Inmates’ Access to Contraband Cell Phones

Cell phones and smartphones are awesome tools for connecting with friends and loved ones and for simply getting things done. Normally, a cell phone would never be considered a weapon, but prisons are not normal environments to say the least.


Robert Johnson definitely knows such environments very well. As a 15-year veteran corrections officer (CO) working primarily on one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks for a CO –- uncovering and seizing contraband -– Johnson experienced what a lot of prison workers dread. In March of 2010, his professional life came crashing into his everyday life with an ear-splitting bang.


A large man, an intruder, had exploded through Johnson’s door early that March morning with a gun, intent on killing him. As the pieces were fitted together later, it turned out that a particularly heinous prison gang had put a contract out on Johnson’s life about two weeks before, when he and his fellow team of officers had intercepted a package containing what was estimated to be $50,000 in undisclosed contraband.


While Johnson was shot six times in the torso, he miraculously survived. Seven years later he is in constant pain but refuses to stop his advocacy efforts to bolster his former co-workers in tackling the mounting public-safety problem of contraband cell phones in the hands of inmates.


Why is Johnson so tireless in his efforts? The despicable gang that arranged for the attempt on his life had both paid off and communicated with the would-be assassin by using a smuggled-in cell phone. Another example demonstrating why Johnson never stops advocating is the horrific and tragic case of the murder of a baby, coordinated via a cell phone by locked-up convicts trying to send a gang-land message.


To pay the bills as well as continue his advocacy efforts, Johnson now works as a consultant with Securus Technologies. Securus Technologies is an industry-leading provider of technology solutions for civil and criminal justice concerns all across the country.


Securus — in particular their innovative Wireless Containment Solutions (WCS) division — is the perfect place for Johnson to work at because they can boast of owning the nation’s only prison cell phone interdiction service.


After having spent a considerable length of time and money –- reports are that WCS cost over $40 million to develop and deploy -– Securus recently released their first internal data, in effect showing the technology in action. It showed that between July 2016 and July 2017, their WCS service stopped dead in its tracks 1.7 million unauthorized calls emanating from behind the eight prison walls where the service was active.


As part of his current work, Johnson was in Washington last March to testify before the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is a huge player in Johnson’s and other public safety advocates’ efforts because the current federal law makes clear that any and all attempts to “jam” or wholly block a cell signal is illegal.


Securus Technologies’ ingenious side-step solution is to simply build their own miniature, on-site cell network to monitor calls originating from inside the prison. The service simply declines to allow any unauthorized numbers through to the wider network, though all 911 calls are allowed to connect.