March 30, 2007

Cell phones: The new prison contraband

Hat tip to the excellent blog on Texas criminal justice issues, Grits for Breakfast:

Scott Henson notes that more than 300 cell phones have been confiscated from inmates in recent years. But, if you know anything about prisons, you’ll know many of those weren’t found for some time, and there’s plenty more that never were found.

He links to a National Public Radio story that highlights the problem nationally, including this Texas example:
Last month, a warden in Texas also got a call — from the mother of one of his inmates. She was calling to complain that her son was getting poor cell-phone reception inside the prison.

“She was paying for the service, and she felt that she should get good service out of the prison,” says John Moriarity, the inspector general of the Texas prison system. “That cell-phone company assured her it was within the coverage area, and she wanted to know why they were having some difficulty getting a good cell-phone signal out of the prison.”

That cell phone was one of more than 300 that Texas prison officials have pulled out of inmates’ cells in the past three years. Moriarity says it's not just happening in Texas and Maryland.

“I’ve spoken to some of my fellow [inspectors general] across the country, and I believe everybody’s having a problem with it,” he says.

In several criminal cases, inmates have used cell phones to run gangs operating outside of prison, to put hits out on people, to organize drug-smuggling operations and, in one case, trade gold bullion on international markets.

(NPR also reports that a Maryland state senator got a cell-phone call from an inmate complaining about prison conditions!)

Scott notes that some inmates are just doing this to have their families avoid getting gouged by collect calls, but also spots that I do, namely that drugs or money can be smuggled inside a phone. And, since he observes that a cell phone, being metal, can’t get past a detector, a corrupt guard is allowing each one inside.

Beyond that, inside a unit, a cell phone can be used to:
1. Set up drug deals, either supplies from the outside, with the same corrupt guard taking a cut, or deals inside a unit;
2. Set up prison sex, either between inmates or with guards;
3. Coordinate gang activity inside a unit;
4. Plan an escape.

Answer? The state of Texas needs to improve its phone plans for prisoners, so those who are just trying to beat costs don’t have to worry. And, it needs to raise guards’ wages enough to at least lessen the temptation of corruption. At least within a unit, the state also needs to look at rotating guard assignments more frequently, to cut down on contact with the same inmates.

Scott has more on the phone calling reform ideas here.

Two additional notes:

First, as NPR reports, there is cell-phone snooping detection technology. It isn’t cheap (try several hundred thousand per prison unit), but this problem isn’t going away.

That’s because …

TDCJ is already worried about Blackberries, not just cell phones.

Oh, if you want an unvarnished look inside TDCJ, try The Backgate, a blog by TDCJ staff. It’s so renegade it’s even pro-union!

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