Got Bars?

States are cracking down on the proliferation of contraband cell phones in prisons.
by | August 2007

When Maryland state Senator Ed DeGrange's office phone rang last year, he found himself on the line with a whistleblower who had an explosive claim. High-ranking corrections officers, the anonymous caller said, were allowing illegal items to get in the hands of inmates at a state prison. The tipster was a prisoner himself, not necessarily a credible source, but he did have evidence of the contraband: the cell phone he was talking on. "I was quite shocked," DeGrange says.

That's the usual reaction from state policy makers who are discovering that, rather than being allowed just one phone call before they're locked up, inmates are enjoying in-network calling and free nights and weekends. In California alone, a thousand phones were confiscated from prisoners last year.

Mobile phones began popping up in the hands of inmates about five or six years ago. "When cell phones were the size of a brick, they were harder to hide," notes Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Most often, the phones are smuggled in by someone who works at the facility--not only guards but also cooks or cleaning staff. Corrections officials suspect that many of them aren't operational for long. Inmates need chargers to keep them powered, which, even with today's smaller phones, are difficult to conceal.

Still, even brief cell-phone access worries correctional officers. Prisoners' landline calls are typically monitored or limited to pre- approved lists of people. With a cell phone, an inmate could touch base with criminal associates or plot an escape without detection.

In 2005, a Nevada prisoner serving a 50-year sentence escaped with the help of a cell phone smuggled to him by his lover, a dental technician at the facility. Prosecutors allege that Brian Nichols, the man who murdered four people at Atlanta's courthouse in 2005, had access to a cell phone while planning an escape from jail last year. The bells and whistles on newer models--cameras, in particular--only add to the concerns.

Prisons typically screen workers as they enter and conduct regular searches to uncover prohibited items, but those efforts haven't been enough to stop the phones. As a result, states are adopting tough penalties intended to discourage would-be smugglers. Some states, such as California, deal with phone smuggling administratively, treating it as a firing offense. However, in Arkansas, for example, providing an inmate with a cell phone is a felony with harsher penalties than providing inmates with other kinds of prohibited items, such as cigarettes.

Some states also are trying to ban all cell phones from correctional facilities, regardless of what employees intend to do with them. "We have a zero-tolerance policy for cell phones," says Eric Kriss, a spokesman for the New York Department of Correctional Services. "Even the head of our whole agency isn't allowed to bring in a cell phone." This year, Nevada made it a felony for anyone without written permission to bring a mobile phone into a prison, regardless of whether it is intended as contraband.

Advocates for prisoners seek a different solution, however. They see the demand for cell phones as a symptom of a larger problem: Inmates lack adequate or affordable phone access through approved channels. Many states charge high rates for calls from prisons, with inmates' families often paying the bill.

Now, some places are reversing those policies. In January, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer signed an executive order that will reduce the cost of a 20-minute collect call from prison from $6.20 to $3.00. In making the change, the state is giving up millions of dollars in revenue.

The shift in thinking has even made it to Texas, long known as the state with the most restrictive phone policy. Non-violent inmates were permitted at most one 5-minute call per month; violent offenders were allowed one such call every three months. But under legislation approved this year, they will get regular phone access for the first time. Corrections officials say they hope the change will cut into the contraband phone market.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |