The Tennessee Department of Correction plans to train three drug-sniffing dogs to add cell phones to its olfactory arsenals in a growing war against prison contraband.
In the last year alone, Tennessee corrections officers confiscated 1,684 cell phones at 12 state prisons. Other states report a similarly growing problem. Despite regular searches of inmates, their rooms and even their visitors, the phones still find their way to inmates' hands. Corrections officers are not allowed to carry phones with them. Sometimes, a friend or family member will toss a phone over a fence to an awaiting prisoner. Others use less comfortable methods.
One of the officials' hopes is cell phone jamming technology. That technology exists but is illegal under current FCC rules. A bill exempting prisons from that ban has been passed by the U.S. Senate and awaits a vote in a House committee.
The Tennessee Department of Correction is using three drug-sniffing prison dogs in East, Middle and West Tennessee. The department is looking to spend up to $7,000 per dog to train them to root out cell phones in addition to their current roles of finding drugs.
Such dogs are already in use in Rhode Island and have been very effective, said John Shaffer, former executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and a consultant with ITT Defense, a contractor that produces cell phone tracking technology for prisons. The dogs "are very effective at sniffing out the odor of cell phones," Shaffer said. "Most handlers believe it has to do with the battery in the cell phone."
Shaffer said the drawback is the dogs are expensive to train and maintain and are limited in how often they can search for cell phones. He said even cell phone jamming technology has its limits. He said that because it's illegal, it has never been tested on a prisonwide scale. He said jamming also limits what intelligence law enforcement can get out of inmates who use cell phones for illegal activity. There's also a danger that the jamming technology blocks legitimate cell phone service outside the prison property.