Outlawed, Cellphones Are Thriving in Prisons
By KIM SEVERSON and ROBBIE BROWN
Published: January 2, 2011
ATLANTA — A counterfeiter at a Georgia state prison ticks off the remaining days of his three-year sentence on his Facebook page. He has 91 digital “friends.” Like many of his fellow inmates, he plays the online games FarmVille and Street Wars.
He does it all on a Samsung smartphone, which he says he bought from a guard. And he used the same phone to help organize a short strike among inmates at several Georgia prisons last month.
Technology is changing life inside prisons across the country at the same rapid-fire pace it is changing life outside. A smartphone hidden under a mattress is the modern-day file inside a cake.
“This kind of thing was bound to happen,” said Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The physical boundaries that we thought protected us no longer work.”
Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smartphones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.
“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”
The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.
But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.
Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike.
In Oklahoma, a convicted killer was caught in November posting photographs on his Facebook page of drugs, knives and alcohol that had been smuggled into his cell. In 2009, gang members in a Maryland prison were caught using their smartphones to approve targets for robberies and even to order seafood and cigars.
Even closely watched prisoners are sneaking phones in. Last month, California prison guards said they had found a flip phone under Charles Manson’s mattress.
The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say. Prisoners agree.
“Almost everybody has a phone,” said Mike, 33, an inmate at Smith State Prison in Georgia who, like other prisoners interviewed for this article, asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation. “Almost every phone is a smartphone. Almost everybody with a smartphone has a Facebook.”
Cellphones are prohibited in all state and federal prisons in the United States, often even for top corrections officials. Punishment for a prisoner found with one varies. In some states, it is an infraction that affects parole or time off for good behavior. In others, it results in new criminal charges.
President Obama signed a law in August making possession of a phone or a wireless device in a federal prison a felony, punishable by up to a year of extra sentencing.
Still, they get in. By the thousands. In the first four months of 2010, Federal Bureau of Prisons workers confiscated 1,188 cellphones, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sponsored the federal measure. In California last year, officers discovered nearly 9,000 phones.
Payments for cellphones range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the type of phone and the service plan. Monthly fees are generally paid by inmates’ relatives. Phones are smuggled in by guards, visitors and inmates convicted of misdemeanors with lower security restrictions.
But that is not the only way. In South Carolina, where most prisons are rural and staff members have to pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors, smugglers resort to an old-fashioned method — tossing phones over fences.
They stuff smartphones into footballs or launch them from a device called a potato cannon or spud gun, which shoots a projectile through a pipe. Packages are sometimes camouflaged with a coating of grass, which makes them hard for guards to detect. The drops are coordinated through texts or calls between inmates and people outside, said Jon Ozmint, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, which confiscates as many as 2,000 cellphones a year.
Even if officers intercept 75 percent of the packages, Mr. Ozmint said, that is still a lot of contraband getting in.
“It is impossible to have enough staff to watch the two million people we have locked up in the country at this time,” he said. “In a perfect world, yes, we would find all the phones. But this isn’t a perfect world.”
The solution, Mr. Ozmint and others say, is to simply jam cellphone signals in prisons. He and prison officials from 29 other states petitioned the Federal Communications Commission last year for permission to install technology that would render cellphones useless. But there is no support from the cellphone industry.
“It’s illegal, plain and simple,” said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association. He cited the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the blocking of radio signals — or, in this case, cellphone signals — from authorized users.
Although supporters of jamming disagree, Mr. Guttman-McCabe argues that the technology is not yet good enough to prevent legal cellphones nearby but not inside prison walls to be jammed. Nor does the technology assure that every inch inside a prison is blocked, he said.
The solution may be a new system introduced in Mississippi. It is being tested in several other states and has the cellphone industry’s support. Called managed access, the system establishes a network around a prison that detects every call and text. Callers using cellphones that are not on an approved list receive a message saying the device is illegal and will no longer function.
At the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which houses about 3,000 inmates, 643,388 calls and texts going in and out were intercepted from July 31 to Dec. 1, 2010. The system was so successful that Mississippi is installing it at the state’s two other penitentiaries.
Finding the actual cellphones inside a prison is another solution, and several states are testing systems. For example, Maryland and New Jersey are using dogs that can sniff out the ionization of cellphone batteries.
“An effective, reliable cellphone-detection capability, that’s the holy grail,” said Mr. Horn, the criminal justice professor and expert on the use of illegal digital technology inside prisons.
The recent rise in smartphones raises larger issues for prisoners and their advocates, who say the phones are not necessarily used for criminal purposes. In some prisons, a traditional phone call is prohibitive, costing $1 per minute in many states. And cellphones can help some offenders stay better connected with their families.
Mike, the Georgia inmate who was part of the recent strike, said he used his to stay in touch with his son.
“When he gets off the school bus, I’m on the phone and I talk to him,” he said in an interview on his contraband cellphone. “When he goes to bed, I’m on the phone and I talk to him.”
Some groups are encouraging prisons to embrace new technology while managing risks. Inmates are more likely to successfully re-enter society if they maintain relationships with friends and families, said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It shows that even if they are closed institutions, prisons are still part of the larger society,” Mr. Fathi said. “They can’t be forever walled off from technological changes.”
And in a world where hundreds of apps are introduced each day by developers hoping to tap new markets, a pool of prisoners with smartphones can seem an attractive new market, despite the implications.
“It’s a pure business opportunity,” said Hal Goldstein, the publisher of iPhone Life magazine. He predicted that games would be big, but so would the ability to download news and books.
“People outside of prison become addicted to their phones,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Can you imagine if you had nothing but time on your hands?”
Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting from New York.