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The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On

by Derek Gilna

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shut-downs have focused attention on the need for connection between all members of society, and for many prisoners, denied in-person visits, a contraband cellphone has helped them keep in touch with family. But that didn’t stop the Mississippi Supreme Court from affirming a 12-year sentence to Willie Nash for having a phone in the county jail. See: Nash v. State, 293 So. 3d 265 (Miss. 2020).

Although correctional officials claim that they can be used for fraud and extortion, just as state provided phones are, the fact remains that most prisoners understand that these phones are too valuable as family communication tools to be put at risk by committing other crimes.

Ten years ago, a New York Times article conceded that harsh penalties and increased vigilance weren’t working to keep phones out of prisons. “The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.”

As noted by former death row resident Jarvis Jay Masters: “For people isolated from the world, hearing a loved one’s voice or a grandbaby coo for the first time is healing.”

The Times report interviewed Terry L. Bittner, a director of security products with the ITT Corporation at the time. He claimed that, “The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison …. the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife.” His company profits off contracts to develop cellphone-detection systems for prisons.

All prison studies have shown that a prisoner who attempts to maintain strong ties with his family and community while incarcerated is much less likely to recidivate upon his release. Approximately 600,000 individuals are released from prison and about the same from jail every year. It is estimated that they have over 2 million children on the outside, most of whom want to hear from their parent.

 A 1972 study by the California Department of Corrections on the subject of maintaining family ties said, “The central finding of this research is the strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison.” A 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study found that, “Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release.”

Detention officials also don’t like to discuss the fact that in higher security institutions on the county, state, and federal level, the sale of overpriced cellphones, with prices climbing sometimes above $1,000, are a way for underpaid guards to supplement their income. This underground supply network, which sometimes supplies drugs and alcohol, does more to compromise prison security and prison guards than a mere phone. The widespread corruption inherent in the tens of thousands of cellphones entering prisons and jails across the country annually indicates that the staff smuggling the phones, do not feel threatened by them.

Some prisoner advocates, noting the inflated prices for jail phone cards and expensive phone calls, suggest that jails have a financial interest in forcing prisoners and their families to use the approved modes of communication, since most of them get a substantial kickback from the telecom company with the monopoly contract to exploit the prisoners and their families.

However, one former sheriff, David Taylor in South Carolina’s Union County handled the issue differently by selling cheap cellphones to help keep order in the jail. “This adds another method of safety to our facility because it takes away the mischief of the inmates sitting back there 24 hours a day with nothing to do,” the sheriff said in an interview. “Fighting. Different things. Confrontation with corrections officers.”

Perhaps yet another reason detention officials at the state and federal level prohibit cellphones is that it provides a way for prisoners to reveal to the outside world the depressing and often unsafe conditions in their institutions, as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Detention officials responded the way they always do to a crisis: locking everything down and limiting communications to the outside world. CNN, in April of 2020, broadcast prisoner video from an Alabama state prisons in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, where a prisoner remarked, “Death is imminent for us.” It also showed the deplorable living conditions, including non-functional toilets, expired food, and rat infestation.

Prisoners have used the phones to not only expose poor living conditions, but to assist in organizing protests, including labor and hunger strikes. They also show a humorous side, including cooking demonstrations of prison pizza, ramen recipes, and dance moves.

However, prison officials have the power to punish and prosecute cellphone offenders. In the case of Nash, a prisoner in a Mississippi jail cell whose phone was not taken from him when he was booked in, received a 12-year sentence, which was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court. “While obviously harsh,” Justice James D. Maxwell II wrote, “Nash’s twelve-year sentence for possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility is not grossly disproportionate.”

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Will Bardwell, who is representing Nash, has stated that he intends to appeal the case to the nation’s high court. 



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Related legal case

Nash v. State