Sniffing out cell phones
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Maryland Department of Corrections at forefront of training dogs to find contraband devices in prisons

Labrador retriever Jett (above and top) sniffs an inmate for contraband with the help of her handler Sgt. Wendell Stockton on Feb. 14 at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. Officials are training dogs to find cell phones in prisons.

Haunted by the 2007 slaying of a homicide witness that was ordered from prison via a contraband cell phone, state officials have been using trained dogs to help sniff out the devices.

Two years ago, Maryland became the first state to train and use its own animals in the searches, said Division of Correction Maj. Greg Shumake.

The impetus came in 2007, when Patrick Albert Byers Jr., who was in jail awaiting trial for a 2006 homicide, placed a call using a cell phone to a hitman, who agreed to kill eyewitness Carl Stanley Lackl for $2,500. Lackl was gunned down on July 2, 2007, outside his Baltimore home.

Byers was later convicted on charges of conspiracy to use telephones in the commission of a murder-for-hire, use of a telephone in a murder-for-hire, conspiracy to murder a witness, the murder of a witness and use of a firearm in a murder. He received four consecutive life sentences.

"Carl Lackl was a hero who deserves to be remembered," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein at the time. "He knelt to comfort a dying man, he called police to report a murder, and he stepped forward to protect other citizens from a violent, armed criminal."

Lackl had identified Byers as the person he saw throwing a gun away as Byers ran from the scene of the killing of a man named Larry Haynes.

Charges against Byers for the Haynes killing were dropped by Baltimore prosecutors after the suspect was indicted for Lackl's murder. Prosecutors at the time said continuing the Haynes case was not the best use of resources considering Byers was facing federal charges.

Even as the jury was being selected in the federal trial regarding Lackl's slaying, a cell phone was found in Byers' mattress. Byers had used the phone to intimidate a witness into recanting his testimony.

At the time Maryland decided to train its own dogs, other agencies across the country had used cell phone-sniffing canines at a cost of $15,000 per dog, Shumake said.

Maryland started cross-training narcotics-sniffing dogs to find cell phones as well.

The dogs' noses are so keen, they can detect the components of a cell phone hidden inside other electronic equipment, such as televisions, he said.

"They can tell which TV has a cell phone inside the way you and I can smell the difference between an apple and an orange because their olfactory sense is so sensitive," Shumake said.

The state currently has three cell phone-sniffing dogs and another undergoing training, he said.

"They're an old-tech solution for a high-tech problem," Shumake said.

Since June 2008, the dogs have found a total of 406 cell phones. The animals located 177 of the 641 cell phones found throughout the prison system this fiscal year, which began July 1, said Erin Julius, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In general, the state has been at the forefront of innovation in efforts to crack down on prison cell phones, said Tod W. Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, who wrote "Cell Phones as Prison Contraband" for the July 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Maryland was the site of a federal pilot program to attempt to jam cell phone signals from within a prison, Burke said.

Cell phones have been used to help an inmate escape from a Kansas prison and for a Texas inmate on death row to make threatening phone calls, Burke said.

While inmates often have telephone privileges, those calls go over land lines that can be monitored by prison guards, and there are limitations to whom they can call, Burke said.

The phones are smuggled in by a variety of means, said Tina M. Stump, assistant commissioner of security operations for the corrections division.

Phones have been smuggled inside body cavities, thrown over prison walls, left along highways where road crews are picking up trash, hidden inside packages and placed inside basketballs tossed over prison fences, she said.

"If there's a way, an inmate is going to try it," she said.

Corrections officers use other methods besides the dogs, such as metal detectors and body searches, to try to detect the phones, Stump said.

Currently, a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore to allow prisons to jam cell phone signals is pending in Congress. A successful test was conducted last year, but cell phone companies and the Federal Communications Commission have raised concerns that such jamming would interfere with cell phone communications generally.

One jamming test at a prison showed that about 200,000 residents had their phone service disrupted, Burke said.

The jamming also could interfere with two-way police communication systems, he said.

For now, the best solution is the dogs and physical searches, Burke said.

Recently, the state began tracking where the contraband cell phones were found in an attempt to understand the flow, Julius said. The number of phones confiscated from visitors and inmates who had been outside on work details rose 36 percent in the last five months of fiscal 2010 compared with the same period the year before, she said.

"Stopping them before they get into the hands of inmates behind the fence reduces their potential impact," she said.

The state also has hired a full-time investigator with the Internal Investigative Unit of the Division of Corrections to focus solely on cell phone cases to help aid in the prosecution of cases with local state's attorney's offices, she said.

In a one-year period ending November 2010, the prison system investigated 183 cases, brought criminal charges in 116, and had a conviction rate of 85 percent, she said.