Inmates are using contraband cell phones to harass victims and witnesses on the Internet, leaving lawmakers, prison officials and social networking sites scrambling for a solution.
In California alone, more than 12,000 phones were confiscated this year, likely smuggled in by friends and family members while visiting inmates. Some prisoners use the phones to communicate with friends and family, but many use them for darker purposes, accessing social networking sites like Facebook to send threatening messages to previous victims or potential witnesses.
Those threats pose significant challenges for law enforcement and criminal courts. “We deal every day with witnesses who are afraid of being identified,” says Timothy Heaphy, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. “If there are increased instances where folks who are incarcerated can reach outside the walls of the jail, that’s going to make it more difficult for us to get cooperation.”
In addition to making threats, inmates have also used smuggled phones to coordinate escape efforts and to continue participating in gang and drug-related activities. Before cell phones became common, prisoners needed an outside connection to make and enforce their threats, but email and social networking seem to have taken the middle man’s place.
State courts are beginning to take notice, however, and are slowly catching up to technology with new laws. California, Orgeon, and South Carolina have proposed or passed laws which punish cell phone smugglers and/or add jail time to prisoners caught with contraband phones.
Facebook’s policy is to deactivate inmates’ profiles when detected, and accounts it suspects may have been created by the prisoner’s friends and family for their use. However, with a half billion users, detection is often a challenge, and many inmate profiles don’t get noticed until they’ve already accessed them for negative purposes.
How social networking sites, corrections personnel, and law enforcement can meet the vast challenges of tracking down and eliminating illegally smuggled phones remains a concern. The problem is growing bigger by the day, and prisons are notoriously understaffed. This situation is compounded by the realization that in some cases, corrections officers are involved in phone smuggling.
But no matter how insurmountable the problem may seem, a resolution is needed, especially for crime victims who cooperated with police and thought they were safe once perpetrators were in jail. Receiving pictures and messages from their persecutors months or years later can make them feel victimized all over again.