Smartphones in Prison: The New File in the Cake
Prisoners behind bars are cut off from the rest of the world, except for the occasional visit and some mailed-in letters. But the same tools people "on the outside" use to communicate with each other -- cell phones and tablets -- are finding their ways into prisons.
Despite states cracking down on phones in prisons, the problem of mobile contrabands are spiraling out of control, despite state and federal laws that forbid them from being in inmates' hands. In addition, while most prisons either do not allow Internet use or censor prisoners' ability to go online, smartphone technology is bringing even more changes to how prisoners communicate to each other and the outside world.
Many prisons weigh the benefits of allowing Internet use, while remaining concerned about the rampant use of cellphones, which authorities can't monitor, leading to illegal activities.
The Contraband Problem
Prison officials have long battled illegal feature phones, even though they have limited uses for making telephone calls and sending simple texts. However, smartphones are eclipsing feature phones worldwide, and time isn't standing still in prisons, either, with powerful smartphones making the contraband phone issue more challenging. While convicts are generally banned from using the Internet in most prisons across the U.S., smartphones give inmates unprecedented access to the outside world.
"The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison," Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons told the New York Times. "The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it."
Corrections officials say smartphones allow prisoners to have uncensored time online. While some may be using their illegal phones to contact family members on the outside, others use them for more nefarious purposes, including calling up maps, photos and photographs for illegal activities.
The smartphones also allow inmates to easily orchestrate gang violence, drug deals and more while they're in prison, and to intimidate witnesses and victims who may have thought they were out of danger.
Smartphones have even been used to coordinate work stoppages not just in one prison, but among prisoners in other locations, too. During an uprising in a Georgia prison not long ago, inmates texted and e-mailed inmates at other prisons to organize simultaneous protests, communicated with advocates and even conducted news interviews over their smartphones.
The phones are also being used to bring in contraband. For example, in 2009, a Maryland prison's gang members were using smartphones to approve robbery targets and to order seafood and cigars.
Beyond Bans, What Can Prisons Do?
This activity occurs despite the fact that prisoners aren't allowed to have smartphones, or feature phones, for that matter, highlighting the slippery nature of the problem.
All state and federal prisons in the U.S. ban cellphones, even for their top officials, meaning that by law, if a prisoner wants to communicate with anyone on the outside, he or she has to either write a snail mail letter, wait in line to make a collect call on a pay phone or wait for visitor's day.
The punishment varies for prisoners found with phones. In some states, possession of a phone in prison affects the inmate's parole, while in others, prisoners face new criminal charges on top of the crimes that already put them behind bars.
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a law making possession of any wireless device in a federal prison a felony punishable by up to a year more in prison.
But when California prison guards even found a flip phone under notorious killer Charles Manson's mattress, it shows the problem is out of control.
So should prisons just give up and allow cell phones to become as common and legal as the books and MP3 players prisoners are already allowed to have?
It doesn't appear the bans are working and surprisingly, there are many compelling arguments for allowing prisoners to not only have cellphones, but Internet through computers or tablets as well.
Why Not Jam the Signals?
Obviously, smartphones in prisons aren't going away. In California alone last year, authorities confiscated more than 15,000 phones, most likely smuggled in by friends and family members while visiting inmates. The numbers multiplied from 1,400 in 2007, according to corrections department data.
These numbers are sparking interest in equipment that can be installed to block all those signals.
Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and a private communications company want to deploy special equipment to block the phones' signals, but the study says the equipment "raises significant concerns," could undermine public safety and be unreliable, according to the a report by the nonpartisan California Council on Science and Technology.
Last month, corrections officials in California awarded a contract to filter electronic communications through Global Tel*Link, which operates traditional payphones inmates use. Global says it'll recoup its costs through increased demand for the payphones, which they say prisoners will return to once their cellphone signals get blocked.
"This groundbreaking and momentous technology will enable CDCR to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates," corrections Secretary Matt Cate said, noting inmates "have used cell phones to commit more crimes, organize assaults on staff and terrorize victims."
However, the technology, the study says, can't capture many of the signals that smartphones use, including 4G, Wi-Fi or Skype, and can't identify specific phones or users.
In addition, the technology could interfere with outside cell phone communications, which is illegal under federal law.
A Money-Making Alternative
Some prisons have worked out a way for their inmates to maintain modern communications -- and how to make a buck from it themselves. For example, the Kansas Department of Corrections allows Internet use, which it says improves security and reduces contraband.
The services are limited, but allow prisoners to exchange e-mails, photos, and visit their loved ones from miles away by video links. This not only benefits the prisoners -- by allowing them contact with the outside world -- but could help in their rehabilitation efforts by also connecting them with job services, online courses and to keep up better with the technology they'll need when they become free again.
Inmates must pay to use the service, with the money going into the prisons' Inmate Benefit Fund to buy library books or other supplies. Prisoners pay 44 cents per e-mail, the same cost as if they're sending a letter through the mail, so authorities have learned that as long as the inmates are communicating, the facility may as well make money from it.
The program also saves the prison system money by cutting down on mailroom processes and the need to check all mail that comes through. Since it is difficult to physically send contraband in an e-mail, and electronic messages are automatically scanned for words and phrases associated with criminal activity or security threats, this may be a more secure alternative. Staff members also can check attachments, like digital photos, to ensure they don't contain sexually explicit content.
By allowing inmates access to the Internet, perhaps some of the lure of having an illegal smartphone could be lost.
The fact is, there may not be one -- and people who want to stay in contact with their families, not break laws, may suffer. Prisoners have all kinds of ways of getting hold of smartphones, whether they're thrown over the facility's walls, smuggled in by other prisoners or even sold to them by prison guards.
Perhaps the solution isn't to ban them altogether, but make them more difficult to use. Prisons may work with cell phone providers to ban service to individual prisoners' numbers, when they find the inmates have the contraband. In addition, perhaps more advanced equipment to block cell phone service -- technology that is more modern than that being used in California -- may be the answer.
Or the answer may end up in more prisons adopting systems like that in Kansas -- and offer responsible Internet use for those inmates and their families who will benefit from it while punishing inmates who insist on illegally contacting the outside world.
The prison struggles, while difficult, are illustrating how different levels of society are grappling for the most appropriate use of mobile technology, and how important devices have become to today's society, whether among free people or those behind bars. ♦
Categories: Beyond Technology