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New technology helps keep cellphones out of Gwinnett inmates' hands

An inmate walks through new scanners at the Gwinnett County jail intended to detect contraband cellphones. Though such phones are a major problems in Georgia’s prisons, jail officials said the local detention center is merely acting proactively. (Special photo)

An inmate walks through new scanners at the Gwinnett County jail intended to detect contraband cellphones. Though such phones are a major problems in Georgia’s prisons, jail officials said the local detention center is merely acting proactively. (Special photo)

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An image of portable cellphone scanners recently implemented at the Gwinnett County jail. The technology is meant to detect contraband phones obtained by inmates. (Special photo)

LAWRENCEVILLE — The Gwinnett County jail has a new tool to help catch inmates smuggling contrabrand cellphones.

In recent weeks, deputies under the guidance of Sheriff Butch Conway have been trained with and begun using the CellSense system, basically a top-of-the-market, ultra-sensitive metal detector designed specifically to detect cellphones. The science behind it is complex and ripe with non-layman language like “magnetic flux” and “motion of ferrous metals,” but the concept is simple: keep contraband phones out of the hands of inmates.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Dep. Shannon Volkodav said the jail hasn’t had major issues with phones in the past but leadership is well aware of the issue’s prevalence in other institutions, particularly on the prison level.

Approximately 9,000 illegal cellphones were confiscated at Georgia prisons in 2012.

“Even though we have not had a problem with cellphones in our facility,” Volkodav said, “we are certainly aware that there is a demand for them. We are trying to stay ahead of that problem by utilizing this technology to our advantage.”

The two towers were purchased in September using drug forfeiture money, Volkodav said, and didn’t cost taxpayers a dime. They’re somewhat similar to your average metal detector but sleeker, portable and more powerful. Volkodav said the scanners recently picked up the staples in the binding of a book an inmate was carrying.

Primary uses in Gwinnett have thus far included scanning work release crews coming back into the jail from the outside world, as well as inmates being moved from one housing unit to another.

“The opportunities to use them are really endless,” Volkodav said.

Detection and prevention of cellphone use in correctional facilities has become a major issue — contraband phones can be and are used to orchestrate crimes, intimidate witnesses and threaten victims from the inside. The so-called black market for them is “a lucrative business” is many detention centers, Volkodav said.

Alongside regular metal detectors and a body imager used at the jail for a few years now, the sheriff’s office thinks its new CellSense system is another beneficial piece of the puzzle.

“That’s a really powerful combination,” Volkodav said.