Could Charles Manson Friend You on Facebook?

Don’t worry: The short answer is probably not. But the killer was caught with a cell phone last month, and smartphones with Internet access are increasingly popular prison contraband. Now California and other states are fighting back with a tech idea called “managed access.”

Charles Manson with smartphone behind bars


Imagine picking up your phone one day, only to find that the person on the other end of the line is the infamous killer Charles Manson.

Apparently, the scenario is not that far-fetched. Last month, Manson was caught with a cell phone in his prison cell. Actually, it was his second such offense. In 2009, according to the AP, Manson became “an unlikely face of the prison cell phone problem,” after guards discovered a hidden cell phone the killer had been using to call and text people in California, Florida, New Jersey, and British Columbia. (Manson had missed calls from Arkansas, Indiana, and Massachusetts–a popular guy, still, after 40 years in prison.)

Unauthorized cell phones have been proliferating behind bars, and increasingly smartphones are entering the mix–“the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” to hear Terry Bittner of the ITT Corporation tell it to the New York Times. That might not be hyperbole: Officials claim that some convicts are using them to continue their illegal activities from jail. Now California and other states are scrambling to find technology to help detect and disable this “most lethal weapon” in our nation’s prisons–and to keep Charles Manson from friending you on Facebook.

How do you foil a prison cell phone network? The easiest thing, of course, would be to simply issue a jamming signal to blanket the area of the prison. The problem with that, though, is that it winds up interfering with legal GPS, radio, and cell phone communications in the area.

So what the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry are instead supporting is a system known as “managed access,” which is still good enough to turn cell phones into little more than high-tech paperweights. According to the FCC’s Jamie Barnett: “As the prisoners realized these cell phone would be ineffective, they stopped even trying.” Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas are also interested in the equipment, which costs about $1 million to install in a given prison.

How exactly does such equipment work? Here’s one example, the “Intelligent Network Access Controller,” or iNAC, from Tecore Networks. Explains Tecore’s Amit Malhotra via email: “iNAC forms a radio
frequency umbrella around a precisely defined target area and intercepts
cellular devices within range. This managed access solution provides
the system operator (for example, the corrections administration) with
the capability to selectively permit or deny communications from these
cellular devices based on a rich policy engine, including allowing 911
calls from even unauthorized devices. This technology is deployed with
the cooperation of the commercial cellular service providers and the
authorization of the FCC, and does not require changes to existing law
in order to be operated.”


Another important, and decidedly more prosaic, facet of the smartphone reduction strategy is to beef up screening. Visitors to prisoners occasionally smuggle in the devices, leading the Times to recently muse: “A smartphone hidden under a mattress is the modern-day file inside a cake.” Conspirators sometimes toss phones in over fences, embed them in footballs, or even shoot over cell-phone-hiding potatoes using special “spud guns.” Some of these conduits can be stopped with a bit more old-fashioned vigilance.

Even the more inventive smuggler may soon face a tough challenge–California is said to be testing a device able to detect a cell phone small enough to be concealed inside a wristwatch.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal