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Prisoners Use Pay Phones to Plan Crimes, Study Finds

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Convicts are orchestrating drug deals, business frauds and even murders from behind the walls of the nation’s 94 federal prisons--simply by picking up pay phones, according to a study released Thursday by the Justice Department.

Investigators found that inmates in the federal system--including eight California facilities--have gained virtually unrestricted access to phones, often abusing that privilege to stay in contact with criminal associates in the outside world.

The problem “appears to be widespread” and the efforts that federal prison officials are making to rein in abuses do not go far enough, the Justice Department’s office of the inspector general said in its report. Fueling the problem, the report found, is that prison officials are afraid of being sued if they impose too many restrictions on phone use.

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The study found 117 serious crimes committed by prisoners via pay phones in recent years, but Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich said in an interview that there are probably many more incidents that go undetected each day because of haphazard monitoring by prison personnel.

When a major drug dealer is sent to federal prison, one FBI agent in Pennsylvania told investigators, “all you do is change his address and phone number.” Dealers can still conduct business and may actually feel more secure peddling their wares from behind bars rather than out on the streets, the agent said.

One dealer bragged about making conference calls to Colombia, talking on the prison pay phone “all day long” and arranging numerous cocaine drop-offs. And another inmate used prison phones to swindle trucking companies out of more than $100,000, the report found.

A notorious drug dealer from Baltimore was allowed full telephone privileges at a Pennsylvania prison even after he was convicted of murder in 1998 for using a prison phone to order hits on two federal witnesses who had testified against his gang.

The inmate, Anthony Jones, reportedly used coded language on the phone to order the hits in early 1997. One of the witnesses was killed and the other was wounded. But Jones’ phone privileges were not cut off until the inspector general questioned prison officials about the matter more than a year later, according to the report.

Federal officials insisted that the new report exaggerates the problem.

“The Bureau [of Prisons] acknowledges that we have failed in some instances as it relates to these issues in the report, but many of these cases are dated, and our technologies and practices were changed as a result,” said prison spokesman Todd Craig. “We strongly object to any inference that we haven’t taken this issue seriously.”

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The problem is not limited to federal prisons.

In Los Angeles County jails, some inmates recently have been targeting people who place newspaper ads about lost pets, harassing them with collect calls and sometimes trying to extort money for the pet’s return, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Parker, an aide in custody headquarters.

Los Angeles jail administrators, under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, are exploring ways to head off the problem, including a telephonic announcement letting the recipient of a collect call know that the call is coming from a jail.

Federal officials said that they too are putting measures in place to restrict improper phone use, including an elaborate new phone system that would allow prison personnel to better track and monitor calls and to ensure that certain inmates are kept off the phones altogether.

The inspector general traced the phone problem to the dramatic expansion of phone privileges since the 1970s, a time when inmates were permitted just one call every three months--and that was placed by prison personnel.

Today, most of the 115,000 federal inmates can make as many calls as they can afford for 18 hours a day.

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