photograph of a CDCR prison

Contraband Cell Phones in CDCR Prisons and Conservation Camps February 2011

cell towerContraband cell phone usage is a problem that CDCR takes very seriously.  Cell phone use by inmates poses a security risk by circumventing the monitoring processes in prisons.  Modern cell phones can record video images, record conversations, provide Internet capability and be used to commit crimes.  CDCR has identified occasions throughout the state when cell phones were used to aid in the commission of various breaches of safety and security.

In 2007, CDCR staff discovered nearly 1,400 contraband cell phones (controlled and uncontrolled); in 2008, it was 2,800; in 2009, 6,995; and in 2010, approximately 10,760 cell phones were discovered. In January 2011, alone, 1,196 contraband cell phones were discovered.

In response to this problem, in December 2007, CDCR established a Warden's Advisory Group (WAG) on Cell Phone Interdiction. It is chaired by Gary Swarthout, Warden at California State Prison, Solano. The WAG is examining cell phone interdiction and related technologies. In accordance with FCC regulations, CDCR does not currently use signal blocking devices.

Possession of a cell phone in a state prison is not a criminal offense in California.  CDCR currently has limited ability to regulate cell phone usage and/or possession by staff and inmates.

  • Employees found with cell phones on prison grounds can face a range of disciplinary actions.
  • Inmates found with cell phones can be charged with a Division F offense, “dangerous contraband,” with 30 days loss of credits.  If the phone was used in a specific criminal enterprise, such as an escape, the inmate could be charged with a more severe offense if there is evidence to tie the phone to the specific criminal act. 


  • Strengthening state laws to increase penalties for possession of & using cell phones in state prisons.
  • Added security at the entrances to prisons (i.e. metal detectors).
  • CDCR K9 program: using specially trained dogs that can detect cell phones at prisons. K9 cell phone pilot began in 2009, now includes a K9 training program in Galt, and K9 units stationed at eight prisons and one at the academy in Galt. There are (24) K9 teams, of which 11 are trained to detect contraband cell phones. On a monthly basis K-9 searches are scheduled at different institutions throughout the state on a random basis.  In addition, the units provide assistance to CDCR Division of Adult Parole, specifically with the Parolee Apprehension Teams during their operations to locate fugitive parolees in the community.  K9 teams also provide assistance to local law enforcement agencies by conducting searches of suspected drug houses during search warrant operations.  Each dog is required to train at least 8 hours a week as well as participate in monthly training conducted by the Statewide K-9 Coordinator to ensure the dogs are working up to standards.
Managed Access Project:   CDCR has been working with both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the California Technology Agency (CTA) to test a new technology that has recently been deployed by one State correctional organization after receiving permission from the FCC.  CDCR, FCC and CTA staff visited the prison in Mississippi where this technology was successfully deployed to assess its feasibility for installation in California, and also visited a pilot demonstration at a prison in South Carolina using managed access systems.  The FCC fully supports this technology in combating the growing problem of contraband cell phone use in state correctional facilities and the evidence in Mississippi, which intercepted over 26,000 text messages in its first days of deployment, is strong evidence that other correctional organizations such as California can realize the benefits of the technology.  CDCR has completed preliminary survey work with one of these vendors to pilot this technology at a CDCR prison in Early Spring 2011. Assuming the technology, which intercepts contraband wireless communication devices, is proven to be a good solution for CDCR in addressing its contraband cell phone problem, CDCR is working on several procurement and funding solutions that can fast-track the installation of this equipment state-wide. CDCR hopes to begin installing this equipment in 2011.