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New steps against jail contraband put forward

ANNAPOLIS — Cellphone blocking technology will be installed at the Baltimore City Detention Center and added measures will be taken to better screen correctional officer applicants, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration announced early Thursday in response to a contraband smuggling scandal.

The new steps were released ahead of a hearing before state lawmakers on the scandal that resulted in the federal indictments of 25 people, including 13 correctional officers. The actions are in addition to a number of steps the administration already has taken to address embarrassing allegations at the state-run jail outlined in the indictment. Previous steps included the firing of a security chief, moving 31 high-risk detainees and a personnel review at the jail.

“We understand there is more work to do — and we are working every day — to build the public’s confidence in our prison system,” O’Malley, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the new actions.

The cellphone blocking technology does not involve cellphone jamming, which states are not allowed to use under federal law. Instead, it throws up an electronic net over an institution and blocks calls to and from unauthorized cellphones, said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Binetti said the technology already is in use at the Metropolitan Transition Center near the state-run jail.

While the cellphone blocking technology is planned the jail, a number of other steps will apply to facilities throughout the state’s correctional facilities.

The state is going to buy additional cellphone data extraction equipment to improve analysis of contraband cellphone intelligence, the O’Malley administration said. The equipment enables authorities to better investigate who has been calling an inmate, as well as when and where the person was when the call was made.

The state also is going to revise a character test to focus on ethics and integrity before hiring correctional officers. A polygraph unit for correctional officer applicants also will be created, and background checks on applicants will be expanded.

In addition, the governor announced that eight additional detectives will be hired for the Internal Investigations Unit. Four additional intelligence analysts will be hired to increase investigative powers.

The state also will explore deploying full body scanners to each facility to stop contraband. A group of Republican lawmakers who toured the jail last month said they believed body scanners should be part of the response to the contraband problem.

The governor also announced plans to deploy FastID fingerprinting for visitors to correctional facilities statewide. That enables authorities to verify visitors are who they claim to be.

O’Malley also noted plans to move forward with legislation to increase penalties for inmates who have illegal cellphones. Similar legislation has died in recent legislative sessions.

The conspiracy outlined in the federal indictment noted efforts to bring in drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the Baltimore jail. The ring involved sex between inmates and guards that resulted in four of the officers becoming pregnant, one of them twice, by Tavon White, leader of a gang called the Black Guerilla Family.