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New Crackdown Aims to Jam Inmates' Illegal Cell Phones

BALTIMORE (WJZ)-- Authorities are trying to curb access to illegal cell phones in state-run and federal jails and prisons in Maryland.

Wednesday, federal prison officials conducted a rare test at a Western Maryland lockup that blocks phone signals.

RELATED: Cellphone Jamming System Tested At Maryland Prison

It drew the attention of Gov. Larry Hogan.

"This jamming technology is a test for the federal government just to stop these prisoners from conducting these criminal gang activities," Gov. Hogan said. "Before I ran, criminal gang enterprises were basically running the prison system. The inmates are not supposed to have cell phones but they smuggle them in. There are cell phones now that are the size of a ChapStick."

The technology can cost $3 million and up for each facility, meaning it's often too expensive for the state.

Maryland is using sensitive new scanners that can detect items as small as needles and tiny phones.

"It's just as dangerous as smuggling narcotics if not more so in some respects," said Gary McLhinney of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections Services.

McLhinney says the number of confiscated cell phones is on the rise. Authorities took 432 illegal cell phones from inmates in 2017, compared to 301 in 2014, 307 in 2015, and 342 in 2016.

"If we find you, we'll arrest you, and we'll incarcerate you. And we don't care who you are," he said.

Last week, they announced indictments against 18 people, including two correctional officers in Jessup.

RELATED: Correctional Officers Among 18 Indicted In Prison Smuggling Investigation

The problem goes back more than a decade. In 2007, Carl Lackl was killed in a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated from a cell phone by an inmate in Baltimore, who Lackl testified against.

"When he called the police, I said 'Oh God, Carl, what did you?' Because I knew they wouldn't take care of him," said Lackl's mother, Margaret Shipley, in a 2013 interview. "I knew they wouldn't watch out."

That case lead the state to test cell phone blocking, but the expense and federal regulations had them looking for other solutions.

Hogan shuttered the Baltimore City Detention Center amid a scandal involving Tayvon White, a Black Guerilla Family gang member convicted of using illegal cell phones to run a criminal enterprise at the facility. The case drew national attention because inmates were essentially running the jail, even having sex with and impregnating some correctional officers.

"Are you confident that the level of abuse is not going on in the system today?" McLhinney said. "We've ramped up our enforcement efforts. We now have teams of investigators dedicated to finding corruption within our facilities."

The Department of Justice supports testing cell phone jamming at federal prisons nationwide. Federal authorities recovered more than 5,000 illegal cellphones last year. Among those pushing for a solution to illicit cell phones is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He was involved in prosecuting Carl Lackl's killing in Maryland, calling Lackyl "a hero who deserves to be remembered.".

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