Inmates easily sneak smart phones into prison

New York TimesJanuary 3, 2011 

  • Despite tough laws, cell phones still get into prisons by the thousands. In the first four months of 2010, Federal Bureau of Prisons workers confiscated 1,188 cell phones. In California last year, officers discovered nearly 9,000 phones.

    Monthly fees are generally paid by inmates' relatives. Phones are smuggled in by guards, visitors and inmates convicted of misdemeanors with lower security restrictions.

— 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 smart phone, which he says he bought from a guard. And he used the same phone to help organize a short, nonviolent 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 smart phone 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 officials have long battled illegal cell phones, smart phones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and other 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.

A tool for inmates

The Georgia prison strike 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 assemblede-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 and conducted news media interviews.

In Oklahoma, a convicted murderer 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 smart phones to approve targets for robberies and even to order seafood and cigars.

Rules on contraband

Even closely watched inmates sneak phones in. Last month, California guards found a flip phone under Charles Manson's mattress.

The logical solution would be to keep all cell phones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say. Prisoners agree.

Cell phones 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 Barack 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.

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 phonesover fences.

They stuff smart phones into footballs or launch them from a potato cannon or spud gun, a device that 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 cell phones a year.

Obstacles to jamming

The solution, Ozmint and others say, is to simply jam cell-phone 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 cell phones useless. But there is no support from the cell-phone 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, cell-phone signals - from authorizedusers.

Although supporters of jamming disagree, Guttman-McCabe argues that the technology is not yet good enough to prevent legal cell phones nearby but not inside prison walls to be jammed. Nor does the technology assure that every inch inside a prison is blocked, he said.

Something that works

The solution may be a new system introduced in Mississippi. It is being tested in several other states and has the cell-phone industry's support. Called managed access, the system establishes a network around a prison that detects every call and text. Callers using cell phones 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 between July 31 and Dec. 1, 2010. The system was so successful that Mississippi is installing it at its two other penitentiaries.

Finding the actual cell phones 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 cell phone batteries.

"An effective, reliable cell phone-detection capability, that's the holy grail," said Horn, the criminal justice professor and expert on the use of illegal digital technology inside prisons.

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