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GAO Report Examines Contraband Cell Phone Use in BOP Facilities

by Derek Gilna and Brandon Sample

A September 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which reviewed the use of cell phones by federal prisoners, recommended various options to reduce the recent spike in such contraband devices. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), “a number of reports have demonstrated that inmates are smuggling in cell phones to coordinate criminal activity, such as drug sales, assault, and murder.”

Possession of a cell phone by federal prisoners now brings possible criminal charges under the Cell Phone Contra-band Act of 2010 (Public Law No 111-225), codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1791, plus institutional discipline such as loss of privileges, loss of good time credits and transfer to a higher-security facility.

Although the GAO report included charts and graphs purporting to show that contraband cell phone possession is increasing, there is no discussion or analysis as to the rate of recovered cell phones per number of prisoners, which is a statistic of greater significance due to the steadily growing BOP population.

Second, there is no discussion in the report about the number of minutes of phone time that BOP prisoners are allotted – 300 per month and 400 in November and December, with 15-minute maximum calls – and the demand that meager amount of phone time creates for alternative means of contact with friends and family, such as cell phones. If, in fact, the BOP’s goal in providing telephone services to prisoners is to “facilitate their contact with family and friends and to help maintain inmates’ ties to the community,” which will help them succeed following their release, then the issue of limited phone time availability needs to be addressed.

Third, if one compares the statistics for seizures of contraband cell phones in BOP facilities with those of state departments of corrections, it is clear the states have a much more serious problem. According to the BOP’s own data, 3,684 cell phones were confiscated from prisoners in 2010, including 1,161 from low, medium and high-security facilities and 2,523 from prison camps, many of which have no fences. This number is dwarfed by the number of cell phones seized by the State of California in the same time period – 10,700, or almost three times the BOP’s total, despite California having a smaller prison population. In South Carolina and Mississippi, the number of cell phone confiscations from state prisoners was 3,241 and 4,300, respectively.

No data was provided as to the method by which contraband cell phones entered BOP facilities, and whether or not the problem stemmed solely from illegal activity on the part of prisoners or their third-party accomplices. It is common knowledge that employees smuggle cell phones at both state and federal prisons in exchange for bribes, and the GAO report noted that staff must pass through metal detectors when entering BOP facilities.

Finally, there is no reliable data, other than anecdotal incidents and unsupported statements by BOP and law enforcement officials, that a large percentage of contraband cell phones are used to plan or execute crimes. According to BOP statistics, 77 percent of all cell phones were found at prison camps where only non-violent offenders nearing release are housed.

The report also noted that revenue from the prison telephone system goes to the BOP’s “Trust Fund,” which is the primary source of funding for prisoner wages; recreational activities including movies, books and cable TV; microwave ovens; washers and dryers; and modest amounts for other programs for prisoners. According to the GAO report, revenue from prison phone calls has dropped, possibly due to less expensive third-party phone services that bypass the BOP system’s long-distance charges, as well as the implementation of an email system (TRULINCS) at federal prisons.

Despite that trend, the report found that the “BOP’s telephone system generated more than $34 million in profits in fiscal year 2010.” BOP officials still voiced concern over the modest decline in revenue. They are apparently worried that Congress, in an era of budget-tightening, would not appropriate money for prisoner amenities if the Trust Fund was unable to cover those expenses. The Trust Fund’s existence helps insulate the BOP from claims by some critics that it “coddles” prisoners, because no taxpayer money is spent for such amenities.

The GAO report noted that “Some prisoner advocates believe that inmates are increasingly using contraband cell phones because of the rates correctional institutions charge for telephone service.” The BOP’s phone rates are lower than those in many state prison systems, at $.06 per minute for local calls and $.23 per minute for long distance. If the rates were reduced, “inmates would benefit from the ability to make less expensive phone calls. However, lower rates also could result in less revenue, lower profits, and therefore fewer funds available for inmate wages and other amenities, unless BOP recovers these funds through other sources,” the GAO observed.

The report further discussed various methods of contraband cell phone detection, including large-scale (and expensive) options such as sensor systems, jamming and managed access systems, as well as less expensive hand-held detection devices. Although the BOP has studied the issue for years, viable short-term solutions do not appear to be feasible due to cost and legal restrictions. The GAO accused the BOP of lacking “a sound evaluation plan that includes ... criteria or standards for determining how well the [cell phone detection] technology works.”

The issue of contraband cell phones in prisons is just one part of the larger issue of balancing institutional security needs with providing meaningful and affordable means for prisoners to communicate with their families and friends – the latter being something that the BOP at least professes to be concerned about.

The GAO report is available on PLN’s website or at

Source: “Bureau of Prisons: Improved Evaluations and Increased Coordination Could Improve Cell Phone Detection,” GAO (Sept. 2011)

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