It’s only happened once in at least three years.
Guards at Airway Heights Corrections Center, tipped by a woman reporting harassing calls from a prisoner that weren’t coming from a prison phone, found a cellular phone in an inmate’s cell.
At least two other phones have been found at Washington prisons since, but nothing like the scores of phones infiltrating prison systems in states like California and Florida.
Hoping to keep it that way, the Washington Department of Corrections has joined more than 20 others state prison systems in signing a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to allow cell phone signals to be jammed in prisons.
Man’s best friend has also joined the effort. Three DOC dogs are now trained to sniff out the phones.
One, a border collie named Razor, works at Airway Heights.
His handler, Murray Cox, named him for one of his new targets – a Motorola Razr cell phone.
The 2-year-old border collie is also trained to find drugs
“As far as that dog is concerned it’s all the same,” said Cox. “He gets his ball for every odor.”
Razor and his colleague, Jessie, demonstrated their skills Tuesday, sniffing out more cell phones in training cells than have been found in the Washington prison system in at least three years. Prison officials hope the dogs will stop inmates from even trying to bring the phones in.
“If they know that we are looking for it, it’s a deterrent,” said Risa Klemme, Airway Heights spokeswoman.
Jail officials in the Inland Northwest say they’ve never had problems with inmates smuggling cell phones. They credit tight security and a different setting than long-term prisons.
“I’ve been here for just about 32 years, and I cannot remember one time where a cell phone has ever gotten upstairs into the general inmate population,” said Lt. Dan Veloski at the Spokane County Jail.
Lt. Kim Edmondson at the Kootenai County Jail said the lack of contact between inmates and the outside population helps.
While prisoners are often allowed in-person visits and time outside, jail inmates visit family or friends via video or behind plastic walls.
“A lot of those things are brought in during contact visit times,” Edmondson said.
But prison officials say improved cell phone technology and airwave availability has increased reception at even remote prison locations.
The problem isn’t here yet, “but it will get here,” said Barbara Davenport, K9 program manager for the Department of Corrections.
Threats via cell phones have been reported in Baltimore and Texas, and officials in California described the flood of cell phones in their prisons as a growing problem in a May Time magazine article.
Razor and Jessie, who’s stationed in Western Washington, have been sniffing for cell phones since about February. A backup dog on the West Side is also trained.
National efforts to combat cell phones in prisons include a bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would allow the FCC to enable states to block cell phone signals.
As it is now, only federal agencies can do so, and the FCC has denied requests from the District Columbia and Louisiana for test jamming sessions, according to the FCC.