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New Epidemic: Contraband Cell Phones in Prison Cells

For decades, prison officials across the U.S. have lined their pockets with multi-million dollar kickbacks from telephone companies that are awarded lucrative prisoner phone service contracts. In doing so, they unwittingly created an “epidemic” that they are now desperately scrambling – and largely failing – to control. Namely, the excessive phone rates that are forced on prisoners and their families have spawned a black market for contraband cell phones smuggled in by guards and other prison employees.

Nowhere is this problem more evident than in California, America’s largest state prison system. In 2009, 300 California prison employees were disciplined for suspected cell phone trafficking to prisoners, and about 100 of those staff members were fired. By mid-year 2010 an additional 150 prison employees had been disciplined.

With contraband cell phones selling for $500 or more, the problem is not going away anytime soon. In 2009, a California guard confessed to earning $100,000 in just 12 months by smuggling cell phones, according to Deputy Director of Adult Institutions Richard Subia.

Contraband cell phones are ubiquitous in every prison, from minimum-security facilities to death row, said Subia. In 2009, California prison officials confiscated 6,995 illegal cell phones, up from 2,800 the year before. Over 9,600 cell phones were discovered in California prisons in 2010, and even infamous prisoner Charles Manson was found with one in his cell. He lost 30 days of good time credits and had his commissary privileges revoked for 3 months.

Only prison regulations prohibit cell phone smuggling in California, so when guards are caught they do not face criminal charges and are not required to forfeit their illicit profits, Subia complained. State Senator Alex Padilla said he plans to introduce a bill that would criminalize both possession of a cell phone by prisoners and smuggling cell phones into correctional facilities. Presumably laws against bribery and corruption by public employees are not deemed applicable to prison employees.

California is not alone. “It’s only getting worse,” said John Moriarty, Inspector General for the Texas prison system. Since 2007, 230 Texas prison employees have been disciplined for cell phone-related infractions. Unlike California, 45 Texas prison staff have been criminally charged for smuggling phones to prisoners since 2005. In one notorious case a prisoner on death row used a cell phone to call a Texas state senator, resulting in a lockdown (and shakedown) of the state’s entire prison system. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.29]. However, the penalties are minimal and typically consist of probation.

In June 2010, New Jersey DOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan urged Congress to pass legislation authorizing cell phone signal jamming technology in prisons. Thirty states have asked the FCC to allow cell phone jamming, which is currently prohibited by the Communications Act of 1934. “The proliferation of [contraband] cell phones in New Jersey and throughout the United States has become an epidemic,” Lanigan wrote. This is a sad and pathetic admission by government officials and legislators that they are totally incapable, and unwilling, to control the corruption by their employees.

The following week, New Jersey prosecutors charged a prison cook and 39 prisoners and outside associates – all affiliated with the Bloods gang – with smuggling cell phones to prisoners. While New Jersey does not track employee discipline for cell phone infractions, prison officials confiscated 575 contraband cell phones in 2009 – a more than 700 percent increase over the 75 phones seized in 2008, according to prison spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer.

Cell phones played a central role in organizing a recent work strike by prisoners at four Georgia prisons. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.24]. They are also used by prisoners to stay in touch with their families and friends, surf the Internet, play games, join social networking sites such as Facebook, and send texts and “tweets” through Twitter.

In 2003, South Carolina prison officials installed metal detectors to prevent staff from smuggling cell phones and other contraband. Cell phone-sniffing dogs and devices that can detect phones even when they are turned off are also being utilized. A Mississippi prison is using technology called “managed access,” which intercepts and blocks calls and text messages sent from unauthorized cell phones. Prison officials in Nevada are asking the legislature for authority to trace cell phone calls made by prisoners, while a federal law passed in August 2010 makes possession of a cell phone in federal prisons a felony offense.

Yet illegal cell phones continue to proliferate in prison and jail cells at an alarming rate, and officials say they are being used to arrange escapes, smuggle drugs and commit other criminal acts. In November 2010, Oklahoma prisoner Justin Walker used a cell phone to post photos on his Facebook page that showed drugs, weapons and alcohol in his cell. His phone was seized after the pictures were brought to the attention of prison officials, and he was placed in administrative segregation.

“The main problem is [that] cell phones circumvent the monitoring process,” said California prison spokesman Paul Verke. “This means the inmates could have unmonitored communications with outside elements and that poses a major security risk. Second, modern cell phones can record video images, conversations, and they can access the Internet, and as such are a vehicle for inmates to potentially commit crimes.”

However, just as prison officials created a demand for contraband cell phones, they can also reduce that demand by providing reasonable phone rates for prisoners and their families. But since it is highly unlikely that prison systems will voluntarily give up their profitable telephone contract kickbacks, the black market for cell phones behind bars will continue to grow. They can also crack down on their corrupt prison staff but that too is very unlikely. Whether at the top (the prison system itself) or the bottom (guards), prisoners are seen as profit centers to be monetized and exploited.

“The real cost of a call is pennies, but prisons make a huge profit from inmate phones,” noted an unidentified ex-prisoner in Florida. “Most inmates can’t afford to stay in touch with family. That is the root cause of the cell phone problem in prisons.”

Sources: USA Today, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, New York Times,,

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