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Contraband Cell Phones On The Rise In U.S. Prisons

Though drugs and weapons have long been a bane to prison officials everywhere, prisons around the country and the world are now experiencing a new contraband problem: cellular telephones.

Texas prison officials learned how serious the problem was during a months-long undercover investigation that began in the fall of 2003. Electronic monitoring by the FBI had revealed that a member of the Texas Syndicate, a violent prison gang, was making and receiving wireless calls from the Darrington prison near Houston.

In the spring of 2004, investigators decided to raid the prisoner's cell--but they forgot to turn off the water. As they entered, the prisoner flushed the cell phone down his toilet. Prison officials, determined to recover the phone, quickly shut down the water lines and ordered several unlucky prisoners into the sewer traps with rakes to drag the bottom.

What happened next must have surprised everyone. They were pulling up cell phones like they were going fishing," said Lt. Terry Cobbs of the prison system's inspector general's office. And you'd think they'd be those inexpensive disposable phones like you buy at Wal-Mart. But we've even been seeing camera phones.

Other states are experiencing similar problems. In Pennsylvania, a 2002 sweep of Philadelphia's three jails turned up 61 illegal phones, said a law enforcement official who requested anonymity. Three guards were subsequently indicted for smuggling in phones, cigarettes, and drugs in exchange for money.

In Washington, three cell phones were found between mid-2002 and mid-2004. One was discovered when an escaped prisoner was caught in a wooded area near the prison.

In other parts of the world, contraband cell phones are old hat. But the problem may be worsening. In 2002, prisoners in Brazil used cell phones to organize simultaneous uprisings in 29 prisons. Fifteen people were killed and 8,000 guards and visiting relatives were held hostage.

In Ontario, Canada, a prisoner was charged with running a drug operation from prison. Prisons in Britain, Sweden, Thailand and India have also reportedly experienced problems with prisoners obtaining illegal cell phones.

In Mexico (which has almost as many prisoners as Texas, despite having over five times as many people), the problem has become so severe that authorities are planning to spend $1 million on cellular phone jammers to block clandestine calls from Mexico City's four biggest prisons, where officials have confiscated around 500 cell phones in recent years. However, the plan may face legal challenges. Cellular carriers in Mexico--like those in the U.S. and around the world--are loathe to countenance any disruption in service.

To stem the tide of illegal cell phones in U.S. prisons, lawmakers are going with what they know best: criminalization. Three states--Iowa, Pennsylvania and Texas--have enacted laws making it a felony for prisoners to possess cell phones. The Texas law, which is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, also made it a felony to provide a cell phone to a prisoner. John Moriarty, the inspector general of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said his office is currently prosecuting 50 cases involving cell phone use by prisoners, most with multiple defendants. Forty-seven of those cases originated at Darrington, he said.

Prison officials cite security concerns as the main reason for cracking down on cell phones, saying the prisoners use them to carry out illicit activity on the outside. [T]hey're not getting the phones so that they can call their mothers on Mother's Day," said Cobbs. They're getting them to keep their communications open on the outside with their organized criminal activities and to make sure they're getting all the drugs that they need.

However, though ignored by prison officials, prisoners covet cell phones for other reasons as well, like maintaining family ties.

In Texas, for instance, when prisoners are assigned to one of the 100-plus prisons in the state's penal archipelago, family residence is not a factor. A prisoner can easily end up nearly 1,000 miles away from home--too far for regular visits. (Even in Mexico, with its notoriously inhumane prisons, authorities recognize the rehabilitative value of strong family ties, which they foster by allowing the prisoner to meet personally with up to 60 visitors 4 days each week, including conjugal visits.)

And the phone situation is no better. Texas prisoners may only request one 5-minute phone call every 90 days--providing they have no disciplinary cases and the prison is not short-staffed, which is the norm. (Phone calls take place in a prison office and are directly monitored by a guard.) If the phone call occurs during a peak time--such as Mother's Day--it may be limited to three minutes. The situation is so oppressive that many Texas prisoners forego phone calls altogether.

In light of this situation, House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen has proposed installing pay phones in Texas prisons, though a similar bill was killed in 2003. However, Allen's suggestion may not be wholly altruistic. Many states have generated enormous sums of money by entering into exclusive contracts with telephone service providers, then gouging prisoners and their families on the phone rates. PLN has reported extensively on prison phone kickbacks. Obviously, prohibitively high phone rates provide prisoners with an economic incentive to use cell phones as well.

Of course, most contraband, including cell phones, would never be introduced into prisons if not for corrupt guards.

In the Darrington case, prison guard Fula May Johnson, 22, was a major supplier" of cell phones to members of the Texas Syndicate, said Moriarty. Johnson was arrested in April 2004 in a Houston parking lot as she met with an associate of a gang member imprisoned at Darrington. According to investigators, Johnson was in possession of a cell phone, a quarter-ounce of heroin, and $250 cash that gang members had paid her to smuggle the contraband into the prison. She was charged with drug possession and bribery.

Prison officials admit that corrupt guards are a big part of the problem. Cobbs said he believes the situation is more pronounced in Texas prisons than in other areas of law enforcement because TDCJ guards are poorly paid (starting salary is just over $1,700 a month), inadequately trained, and undergo only minimal background checks.

Johnson's Houston attorney, Charles Gaston, agrees. Here you've got a poorly educated black girl working in a prison, and her only qualification was that she applied for the job," said Gaston, who is also black. They don't pay her (much) and she's got an illegitimate child. So you walk up to her and ask her, Would she take a cell phone into prison and also take a little heroin in there? And here's a couple hundred dollars for your trouble.' Do you think she'd take it?

While prison officials debate the issue, the influx continues. In June 2004, guards at Darrington opened a large jar of sandwich spread after they were tipped off by a prison snitch. Inside was a cell phone and charger, sealed in a plastic bag.

Sources: The Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times

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