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Inmate cell phone use a growing problem

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - State prison officials seized nearly 11,000 cell phones last year, some used to arrange extortions and assaults, others used by the likes of cult killer Charles Manson to connect with the outside world after more than four decades behind bars.

Manson became an unlikely face of the prison cell phone problem after he was caught calling and texting people in California, Florida, New Jersey and British Columbia. He had missed calls from Arkansas, Indiana and Massachusetts on the phone that guards discovered in March 2009, and he was caught with a second phone last month.

Officials have become so outraged at the notion of violent inmates like Manson possessing cell phones that they are trying new ways to strike back.

Correction officials tell The Associated Press that they are preparing to test a system that would capture every cell phone signal from a prison and block unauthorized calls.

California legislators are also considering proposed changes to state law that would step up enforcement against cell phone violators in prison.

"If the phones didn't work from behind bars, that would solve a lot of the problems. A lot of them wouldn't want the phones anymore," said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

Manson, 76, obtained two cell phones despite being housed in California's only Protective Housing Unit, reserved for the most notorious inmates. Authorities believe he received the first phone from a visitor, a typical method of contraband delivery.

Guards encounter more creative methods as well, including phones that are punted over prison walls inside soccer balls. Guards themselves have been accused of smuggling many of the phones.

The nation's largest state prison system, California's, decided to follow the lead of Mississippi, which is installing a system known as "managed access" after a successful six-month test.

The Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry support the system as an alternative to jamming, which can interfere with legal GPS, radio and cell phone communications.

Installing the managed access equipment would cost about $1 million per prison, Thornton said. The state has 33 adult prisons, so the expense could be considerable as California struggles with a nearly $27-billion budget shortfall through June 2012.

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