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Georgia Prison Disturbance Linked to Contraband Cell Phones

In the wake of a disturbance which left twelve people injured at Hancock State Prison, Georgia prison officials are suggesting that prisoners used cell phones to plan and coordinate the uprising.

On November 25, 2011, while prisoners in one area of Hancock set fire to the prison, prisoners in another area were engaged in multiple fights. One prisoner was stabbed.

Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens said afterward, "We believe the activity was synchronized and coordinated through illegal cell phones."

The prison remained on 24-hour lockdown for at least two weeks after the disturbance.

Commissioner Owens suggested that prisoners set fires, broke TV sets, and entered Hancock's administration building, all in a clever diversionary effort to delay staff from discovering and stopping the fights.

According to Owens, prisoners' use of cell phones is at an "epidemic level." Moreover, in his view, their use is not about staying in touch with family and friends. "Cell phones in prison aren't about calling grandma for Thanksgiving," he opined. Rather, "it's about power, it's about money, and often times it's about gangs."

That cell phones were used by prisoners at Hancock on November 25, 2011, seems to be an unavoidable conclusion. The source for this article, a correspondent with 11 Alive, was sent pictures taken by cell phones during the disturbance that day. The pictures were identified as having been sent by a relative of one of the prisoners at Hancock; they show prisoners setting fires, as well as one prisoner donning what appears to be a guard's uniform.

While it is possible, of course, that fact, by itself, does not establish that cell phones were used, as Commissioner Owens believes, to "synchronize and coordinate" the various activities of the disturbance that day – or, for that matter, to plan illegal activities more generally.

Still, the statistics show that there is a high demand for cell phones in prison – and, perhaps more disturbingly (from a corrections perspective), no shortage of supply.

In 2011 alone, Georgia prison officials confiscated more than 8,000 cell phones from Georgia prisoners.

Cell phones are contraband in prison. Smuggling them into prison is an offense under Georgia state law. In 2011, 366 people were arrested for smuggling contraband into Georgia prisons. (Interested readers can read the names of the arrestees on the Georgia Corrections Department's Facebook page.) Among those arrested were 57 prison employees, including one corrections officer who was caught smuggling three cell phones into Macon State Prison in October 2011.

In light of the relatively high cost of prisoner-initiated phone calls, made through legitimate channels [see PLN cover story by John Dannenberg], it is perhaps not surprising that a thriving black market for cell phones has emerged, and proliferates, in prison systems throughout the country.

From the prisoner perspective (which feeds the demand), the opportunities made available by possession of a cell phone – including not only uncensored communications with family and friends, but also, depending on the price one is willing to pay, access to the internet – may well be worth the risk of possible disciplinary action.

Conversely, on the supply side, with black market profits for cell phones in prison ranging in the hundreds of dollars – all of which is tax-free – the financial benefits of selling cell phones to prisoners may outweigh the risk of potential arrest, particularly in this down economy.

Interestingly, although the technology currently exists to jam calls made by cell phones from inside prisons, according to Commissioner Owens, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) won't permit its use. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has written a letter to the Chairman of the FCC, asking that an exemption be made for the use of "cellular jammers" in prisons. In his letter, Governor Deal wrote, "Carving out an exception for the use of this technology in prison facilities is sound policy to protect inmates, corrections employees, and the public."

Source: Press release,

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