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In Prison, A Cellphone Really Is A “Cell” Phone

Recent news reports highlight the challenge prison officials face in dealing with the proliferation of cell phone usage in prison across the nation.

Cell phones are nominally prohibited for prisoners in all state and federal prisons, but they turn up by the thousands, and the problem has been made even more difficult with the advent of Smartphones.>

With a Smartphone, prisoners may have full access to the internet, allowing all forms of activity, from contacting friends and family and shopping to directing attacks on other prisoners and criminal activity outside the prison.

Strikes Organized with the Help of Facebook

In Georgia, the New York Times reported, prisoners organized a strike using cellphones and internet applications like Facebook. The protest was concerned with the lack of pay for their work, bad food and limited visitation policies.

Unlike other protests, the prisoners were able to post up-to-minute reports and follow their coverage in the news media.

Prison officials have struggled to come up with a workable solution to prevent this prisoner access to cellphones. Results have been mixed. In California, 11,000 phones were confiscated in 2010. South Carolina collects 2,000 a year.

Some are smuggled in, but many are literally thrown “over the wall.” They have been kicked in soccer and footballs, shot through “potato guns” and are often thrown in packs camouflaged with grass to make it difficult for guards to discover them laying inside the fence.

Search Everyone?

Can’t everyone be searched? Well, yes, but that costs money. California has estimated that searching all employees and contractors entering the prisons within the state system would cost $20 million. Even limited, random searches are calculated to cost $1.3 million annually.

Jam the Signal?

No, the federal Communication Act of 1934 prohibits jamming of radio frequencies.

The most promising technological solution could be the system introduced in Mississippi. Known as managed access, it allows the system to track every call and text. Cellphones that are not on the approved receive a message saying the device is illegal and are disabled.

California, with largest state prison system, will follow the lead of Mississippi and implement a system of managed access. In Mississippi, the system intercepted over 600,000 calls and texts during the six-month trial period.


While the phones may used for criminal or dangerous behavior, there is an aspect of the issue that shouldn’t be ignored. Cellphones are used by prisoners to communicate with their family. The New York Times article notes that David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “Inmates are more likely to successfully re-enter society if they maintain relationships with friends and families.”

A prisoner named Mike is mentioned in the story as regularly speaking with his son when the boy gets off the school bus and when he goes to bed at night. Prison often has a corrosive affect on family relationships, so developing a way to use cellphones to lessen this effect would be helpful. A managed network could be constructed to permit certain prisoners to have operational cell phones, say, as a reward for good behavior.

As the Justice Center of the Council on State Government reports, 77 percent of state prisoners will be released back to their communities.

While it is important to control cellphone usage to for the safety of prison personnel and other inmates, ignoring the needs of inmates who will be released can only lead to increased recidivism and a return of many to prison, carrying with it the all of associated costs to the states that they can ill afford.


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