By IAN DEMSKY
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
MCNEILL ISLAND -- The attempted suicide of a McNeil Island inmate in September highlighted a new high-tech threat for the state Department of Corrections: contraband cell phones.
Over the weekend, the entire prison was on lockdown while officers searched it stem to stern for illicit phones and other contraband. Such prisonwide searches are rare and expensive because of the manpower involved.
Information developed in the suicide case led to the Oct. 31 arrest of a McNeil corrections officer on suspicion of smuggling-in at least one cell phone, a Washington State Patrol spokesman said. The News Tribune is not naming her because prosecutors have not filed any charges in the case.
Cell phones are dangerous behind bars because they allow inmates to have unmonitored contact with the outside world, including with drug and gang ties, prison officials say. Unlike calls made through prison phones, they can't be recorded or screened.
The morning of his Sept. 18 suicide attempt, Leon Toney and another inmate were linked to a cell phone that had been smuggled into the prison, records show. It's also clear from the department's review of the incident that family members found out Toney was hurt not from prison officials, but from someone on the inside. They said the call came from another inmate using a cell phone and that they knew of several others inside.
The phone in the Toney case was the third found at McNeil in the past two years, officials said. No statewide figures were available, but DOC spokesman Chad Lewis said a survey of state prison administrators found they had seized only a couple phones each.
"The number we've seen aren't that high," Lewis said. "But this is different than most other types of contraband. You can only pass a cigarette around so many times. You can pass a cell phone around countless times."
A special team of 44 officers from three other prisons was brought to McNeil on Saturday to conduct the two-day search, which went cell-to-cell and inmate-to-inmate through the 1,280-inmate prison.
The inmates were strip-searched and officers crawled beneath beds and desks, peered into light fixtures, and made sure TVs and radios hadn't been pried open so that contraband could be hidden inside. The two-man teams spent roughly 20 minutes per cell.
"It's a serious thing to inconvenience a whole facility like this," said Jocelyn "J" Hofe, who heads up the Department of Corrections' emergency operations statewide. "It's a disruption for the staff, visitors and inmates."
Most facilities see such large-scale searches only every few years. But, officials noted, they only augment the daily cell searches the facilities already do.
Bringing in the specialized team from outside prisons adds fresh eyes, said DOC administrator Earl Wright, who supervises several prisons, including McNeil. It also provides training opportunities for the specialized officers and McNeil staff.
Hofe said some contraband may have been flushed or destroyed when it became clear that a sweep was happening. "But it still gets it out of the prison," she noted.
As of Sunday afternoon, officers turned up several homemade tattoo guns and a small amount of drugs. A syringe was found inside a jigsaw puzzle box in a common area. Also seized was a fist-sized pouch of tobacco that had been hidden inside an inmate's radio. Investigators estimated it was worth $200 to $300 on the prison black market.
No cell phones were found, however.
"This is a whole new game for us," McNeil Superintendent Ron Van Boening said in a recent interview. "They (cell phones) are getting smaller and smaller."
The inmates know officials are looking for the phones and are going to great lengths to hide them, he said. It's tough, officials admit, because some of the phones are small enough to be, in prison parlance, "keistered."
The state Department of Corrections is weighing administrative and legislative approaches to increasing the penalties for being caught with a cell phone, said Lewis, the DOC spokesman. The department is also training its drug-sniffing dogs to find them, though budget cuts have reduced the number of dogs across the state from eight to two.
Cell phones aren't just a problem in Washington. Last month, a state senator in Texas received a cell phone call from a death row inmate. The caller told the senator he knew that he had two daughters and gave their ages, address and other personal details he had gleaned from the Internet, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Officials found the phone had been used to make more than 2,800 calls in the previous month alone.
While prison officials stress the dangers cell phones pose behind bars, prisoner rights advocates say there's another reason they're coveted -- they allow inmates to keep in touch with family.
Maintaining community and family ties is important for an inmate's success upon release, corrections officials say. But at the same time, inmates and their families pay far more to talk to each other than the general public does.
Despite a rate cut in 2006, Washington's rates remain among the highest in the country, according to the advocacy group Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE. In surveying rates nationwide, the group ranked Washington ninth-highest out of 46 states where data were available.
The rates, which can be as much as 22 times higher than the five cents per minute many South Sound residents pay for long distance, amount to a tax on some of the poorest members of society, said Kay Perry, coordinator for CURE's Campaign to Promote Equitable Telephone Charges.
"A lot of states spend millions of dollars trying to help inmates transition out of prison and build a social network when they get out," she said. "But the current telephone systems tear families apart. The family members pay for it -- you're punishing them only because they love somebody."
While most types of inmate calls in Washington are now billed at a flat rate -- either $3.15 or $3.50, depending on how it's paid for -- out-of-state calls cost $4.95 plus 89 cents per minute, or $22.75 for a 20-minute call. The average wage for state inmates is about $1.15 per hour.
About 60 percent of what state inmates and their families spend on phone calls goes to programs that have nothing to do with phone service.
From September 2007 to September 2008, inmates at Washington's 17 prisons and their families paid for $8.7 million in phone calls, according to records obtained by The News Tribune. Under a contract with Chicago-based FSH Communications, $5.1 million of that is given right back to the DOC.
Most of that money goes into an Offender Betterment Fund, which pays for items like school supplies for inmates' children, books and staff for prison law libraries, and cable TV service. A quarter of it goes toward a state fund for crime victims and witnesses.
Perry says she understands the argument that the $5 million commission that returns to the DOC is $5 million that taxpayers don't have to spend. But to her, it's unfair to shift that burden to inmates and their families.
"It's all of our responsibility," she said. "When society makes the decision to incarcerate somebody, we have the responsibility to rehabilitate them. All citizens should have to pay for rehabilitation programs that help these people turn their lives around. Otherwise you're taxing some very poor folk."